Japanese Literature Review: 「猫を抱いて象と泳ぐ」 (Swim With an Elephant, Embracing a Cat) by 小川洋子 (Yoko Ogawa): A nostalgic ode to chess

By | May 14, 2018

Yoko Ogawa (小川洋子) is an award-winning Japanese author who has written over 30 works, with at least eight of them translated into English so far. She is perhaps most known for her novel “The Housekeeper and the Professor” (博士の愛した数式) which was also made into a movie.

I read Ogawa’s book “Little Bird” (ことり) last year and wrote a review of it you can find here. What I remember most about that book was the unusual characters, emphasis on emotions than actions, and a very dense, descriptive writing style. This last part means that it took me an extra long time to finish that book, given the length (or at least it felt like it did).

While I did enjoy “Little Bird”, when her book “Swim With an Elephant, Embracing a Cat” (猫を抱いて象と泳ぐ), at first I was hesitant, especially since I was in the middle of several other projects and generally like to focus on only one or two things at a time. But it was a really strong recommendation, so I couldn’t help give it a read.

There was one other thing that caught my attention: I heard that the game of chess (for which I am a big fan of) played a major part in this book.

At a high level, this novel shares many things with “Little Bird”, beginning with the “unusual characters” part. The main character is a boy born with a strange problem: his lips are fused together, rendering him initially unable to cry or even breathe from his mouth. While a doctor immediately cuts the connected area and uses a piece of skin from another part of his body to fix things up, this dramatic beginning has a major impact on the boy’s identity. An encounter at an early age with an elephant (and yes, eventually a cat) also helps ‘shape his psyche’, to put it (purposefully) vaguely.

Eventually, the boy encounters the game of chess and he grows a deep, lasting connection with the game.

I’m always hesitant to give away any of the story in reviews, especially for books like this where the action and major plot twists aren’t that frequent. So I’ll just stop giving details about the story and say the boy develops a very unique way to play this traditional game and ends up being given the honorable nickname “Little Alekhine,” a reference to the famous chess master Alexander Alekhine. While partway through I had some reservations about some of the events that occurred, in the end I think this novel tells a great story focused on a small number of themes.

I had mixed feelings about the chess aspect of this book. While there are parts of several games described using actual chess notation (ex: “E4”), nearly all of them are incomplete so you can’t really follow them from start to end. I think most people can enjoy this book sufficiently without knowing too many details about chess, and I’ve heard of people who ended up liking the book, though they had little chess knowledge. As an aide to chess beginners, however, there is a brief description of how each piece moves in the first few pages of the E-book version, written in simple, but artful language.

But the really great thing about this book is that goes far beyond specific moves––it elevates chess to a philosophical, almost religious level. A cryptic phrase like “Do not play chess; let it play you,” gives you a little taste for what it’s like (note this is not a direct quote from the book). I think some readers will be dazzled by Ogawa’s tribute to chess (whether you know how to play the game or not), though perhaps some will find it a little hard to associate with. But, having never read a which revolves so much around this classic board game, I was really impressed.

Just like with “Little Bird”, Ogawa’s style in this novel very descriptive, employing techniques like frequent metaphors (sometimes involving chess concepts or pieces) to describe characters’ feelings, actions, or appearances. Furthermore, the average sentence and paragraph length is longer than what I’ve experienced with other writers, and this certainly demands a greater attention span. Depending on my state of mind (and how much time I have to read), I found the style either tedious and frustrating or deep and enlightening. But I always wished that my reading speed was faster so I could enjoy more of this book in a single sitting. It’s no exaggeration to say you pretty much need several years of Japanese study to really even attempt this book (I’d say 3-5 years solid study), and even then you may find it a challenge to get through. If you are a chess fan you’ll get good exposure to special chess terms you may never have been before (Ogawa cites using a handful of books as reference material, she clearly did her homework). Even though I made a vocabulary list on chess-related words in Japanese, there were many I had never come across before. For example 棋譜 (kifu), which means a written record of a game in chess notation.

Out of curiosity, I did a quick search for recommended Ogawa works (in Japanese), and found this. Believe it or not, 「猫を抱いて象と泳ぐ」was actually #1 on the list!

This book is available on Amazon Japan, though I read the E-book version from EBook Japan. While EBook Japan’s E-reader on the iPad looks nice, the usability for anything advanced is awkward, especially for searching words you want to check the meaning of. I prefer the usability of BookLive and intend to use that store next time again.

I couldn’t help feeling the style of this book somehow resembled the bestselling author Haruki Murakami, and after some consideration, I realized it is because this novel has a delicate balance of reality and fantasy elements without going over the top. Also, perhaps it is also because of the strong element of nostalgia (or sentimentality), which some have said is a trademark of Murakami’s novels. But let me be clear–there are many differences between these two authors’ works, just because you enjoy one author doesn’t mean you will necessarily like the other.

When I read Japanese books these days, I always think in terms of whether the book deserves an English version or not. For this one, it is a resounding yes, though even though several years have passed since it’s publishing I haven’t seen any signs of one being made. I almost want to translate it myself just so I can enjoy it at a reasonably fast pace (as my English reading speed is much faster). I will say that if I owned a publisher, I would definitely be trying to get a proper English translation published of this work. I can’t say whether it will make money or not (I’m not qualified to make that call), but as an unusual novel that is an artful tribute to chess, written with carefully-sculped prose, I think it’s a work that English readers deserve a chance to savor–and take a dip in the “sea of chess” (as Ogawa elegantly puts it).


Note: the title “Swim With an Elephant, Embracing a Cat” is a fairly literal translation of the Japanese title. Just as titles are often adjusted when translated into other languages (for example, the Japanese title of “The Housekeeper and the Professor” literally translates to “The Equation the Professor Loved” or perhaps “The Professor’s beloved equation”), I think this one could benefit from a little modification. Personally, I think some hint of ‘chess’ should be in it. I think ‘Little Alekhine and the Sea of Chess’ has a nice ring to it.

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