By Pallavi Narayan
The cover of Kappa Quartet is striking. It’s simple — a subway car opening onto a station platform, with Japanese signs hung up, a man in a hat reading a newspaper on the left, a woman in a dress with a closed book on her lap. The man and woman are faceless, and the person entering is incomplete — a faceless individual with a pair of red glasses perched on (in?) air. Indeed, waiting is the trope the novel appears to be premised on. Water is the element kappas are most comfortable in and around, and it too plays a vital role in moving the narrative forward.
The novel plunges right into the action by taking as self-evident the presence of the mythological figure of the kappa, a river demon of Japanese folklore, in the everyday life of humans and cities. Kappas enjoy a solitary existence and distance themselves from even their families, yet they are integrated into fast-paced society: they drink at izakayas, consume nabe at restaurants, play instruments in orchestras, relax at cafes and hotels, marry other kappas and procreate, marry humans and don’t, get adopted as children, go to school, in short, do everything that humans do. How they are differentiated is through a hole in the head (while bathing, it is apparently a custom for them to have another individual present scoop up some water and pour it into the hole). In some kappas like Takao the hole is very small, say, “no larger than a five-hundred-yen coin”, while his nephew “Goro’s was probably three or four times bigger” (p. 145), because of which he is picked on by his classmates.
Kappas can also take away human souls. It is specialists or senmon-ka such as Ms Neo, Haruhito Daisuke and Ahab who are able to see who is without a soul, and which kappa is prone to turn dangerous. It is not elaborated as to how they gain their powers, and how they protect their souls from being sucked away by kappas. The senmon-ka appear throughout the novel, putting forth the question of what is fabricated and what the actual happenings are.
The writing is elegant and self-assured. A couple of sentences particularly stick in my mind. Ahab says, “You know, once I was on a train, and I saw someone finish a book right in front of my eyes. The look on the girl’s face was priceless.” (p. 213) And Noor: “It’s the thing you do, if both individuals happen to be uncreative. You just meet up in town and find a place to eat.” (p. 216) Meanderings such as these, with a philosophical undertone and gesturing towards the production of stories, are brief and always within the context of the larger narrative. The characters are searching for something, but what that something is, is not quite defined. The former bookstore-turned-café where the novelist Chiba Mari’s fiction intersects with real (or fictionalized?) accounts that are sketched out for her by different characters — for her to gain inspiration to overcome her writer’s block — is the background for others in Yam’s novel to converse and wonder about the former bookstore. Seemingly as an aside, here the owner would apparently give one the only book one would need to read in one’s entire life. Kevin Lim, the young man without a soul, is given a black, blank notebook. Does this mean his life will forever be one of remaining in readiness for an undefined purpose? The same is true of Su Lin who periodically disappears from her daily life, to the concern of her husband, and asks him to do the same when the time is right. What do the blue room and the man in beige that Goro sees in the mirror indicate? He says the man is coming to get him, but this is explained as something peculiarly kappa and not gone into after a point. And what of the enigmatic kappa Mr Five? Is he aiming to destroy or to save “soulless” humans? Questions such as these remain for the reader to mull over, leaving one a little puzzled at the open-endedness and yet oddly satisfied, because life can be like that too — serendipitous and not quite sure of itself.
In a series of overlapping tales, strange yet fortuitous, Yam evokes well the ambience and ethos of Tokyo, Hokkaido and Singapore. He does not attempt to pander to the reader by being excessive in his descriptions: the narrative takes what it needs and that is, in the moment described, more than sufficient.
Pallavi Narayan is Kitaab’s Fiction Editor.