Generally when I pick a Japanese novel to read, either the story itself caught my attention or there was something else about the book (for example, it won one or more awards) that made it seem a worthy read.
In the case of the novel “Little Bird” (ことり) by Yoko Ogawa (小川洋子), it was clearly the latter. In the process of searching for something to listen to before going to bed, I stumbled on this video that was one of the top hits for the keyword 文学 (“literature”). I didn’t completely follow the discussion, but I was able to figure out that they were talking about a book called “Little Bird” that seemed to have gained high praise as a work of literature, and furthermore I was impressed by the eloquence of the author.
When I did a quick check, I saw that several of Ms. Ogawa’s works were already translated into English, with the last being a few years ago. Interestingly enough, this book wasn’t on the list. This told me a few things, first that the author’s writing (as well as the translator(s) skill) must have been good enough to sell sufficient copies in English. But it also told me that this book was somehow not deemed appropriate for English translation or was simply too new (it was published in 2016) for there to be an English version yet. I assumed the latter and soon headed to the nearest Kinokuniya to buy the book.
To be sure, I doubt I ever would have selected a book titled “Little Bird” from its title, and it’s blurb didn’t sound too interesting either. Here is the blurb in Japanese (from the book’s page on Amazon Japan) with my rough English translation. (I added a few minor nuances that were not in the original text.)
Two brothers, one who cannot speak the language of humans but is able to comprehend bird calls, and the other, the only person who understands his older brother’s strange language. They live a quiet, simple life, supporting each other in a world where they don’t seem to quite fit in. Eventually, the older brother passes away and the younger brother ends up being called “Little Bird Man” by the locals… A thoroughly enjoyable tale that chronicles the brothers’ modest life, in turns heartwarming and sorrowful.
Personally, I tend to enjoy novels that focus more on ideas, or interesting settings, rather than well-crafted stories or interactions between characters. As you can probably tell from the blurb, this book is essentially a character study of two brothers. While there are a handful of key events, they are far and few between and the real core of this book is the descriptions of the characters actions, thoughts, and the world around them. In fact, Little Bird has been structured such that you know early on what is going to happen in the end, and this helps you to accept things and shift your focus to how they happen. (Having said thad, there is one or two story arcs which I really enjoyed)
Fortunately, the author is extremely skilled in writing polished prose, especially descriptions just detailed enough so you can really visualize and associate with characters. After a few pages I started to pick up the particular flow and pacing of Ms. Ogawa’s writing that drives the story more than any event. Whether it is the special tint of light before sunset or a unique quirk of one of the characters, this book is full of fresh descriptions that I’d love to emulate in my own writing.
Although it’s been quite a long time since I’ve read a novel in English that is considered (classic) “literature”, I think that this book shares some things in common with those, in particular the slow pacing and extended descriptions, with a focus on a few unusual central characters, and–depending on your interpretation–a window into what it truly means to be human. I can appreciate how this novel integrates the thought-provoking topic of birds being smarter than commonly thought and possessing their own complex language, but I felt that Ms. Ogawa could have taken things a little further in this area. But, who knows, you may find a new significance to bird calls after reading this book.
If you are studying Japanese and considering reading Little Bird, be warned that it is by no means a dialogue-driven story, in fact there are relatively few lines of dialogue, some of those being extended bird calls (I’m being serious). Besides being description heavy, the author tends to employ long paragraphs, and it’s not that uncommon to come across pages with only two or three giant paragraphs. For people whose rate of reading Japanese is frustratingly slow (and I sometimes include myself in this group), these great big clumps of words can be disheartening as you get lost in a quicksand of letters. But once you stop worrying about reading speed and start to pick up the writers style, you can really enjoy what this book has to offer. Fortunately, at (only) around 300 pages, even if you are slow at reading you can still reach the end with enough time and patience. (To be honest, if this book was much longer, I might never have picked it up in the first place)
The kanji level is moderately high, though as with most books there is occasional furigana reading hints for uncommon characters (I bet you didn’t know 嘴, the character for “beak” (kuchibashi)). You’ll get to learn some bird names in Japanese, and while you aren’t likely to use these in everyday life, if you are a bird lover I’m fairly sure you’ll appreciate this knowledge. In fact, I’m confident that bird lovers will have a great time reading this book.
If you read novels to learn Japanese words to use yourself in the real world, there are some good words that may come in handy if you live in Japan. For example 湿布 (shippu), which is a medicinal compress. Because the story revolves around the daily life of these two brothers (and a drugstore appears as much as some of the characters), you’ll get exposure to many other such words.
I highly recommend this book to those looking to find a good example of modern Japanese literature, those into birds, or anyone who can appreciate a skillful writing style that focuses more on description than dramatic action.
As I mentioned previously, there is no English version of this book as of the time of this article’s writing. But if you think you might enjoy it, consider checking out some of the author’s other works that are translated into English. I recommend “The Housekeeper and the Professor” (博士の愛した数式) which I heard was quite good. It also has a movie if you prefer that media.
I’m considering on translating a small portion of this book to give a better sample of the author’s flowing style. If you are interested, please leave me a comment to that effect.
Translation note: I have rendered the title as “Little Bird” but perhaps “Little Birds” or “Tiny Birds” would be more appropriate (Japanese doesn’t have a plural like English except for special cases). Other non-literal ideas for the title would be “Bird Men”, “Bird Brothers,” or “The Bird Boys”.