Japanese literature review: “大きな鳥にさらわれないよう” (“To Avoid Being Swept Away by a Large Bird”) by 川上弘美 (Hiromi Kawakami)

By | February 22, 2021

I picked up “To Avoid Being Swept Away by a Large Bird” by Hiromi Kawakami for the usual reasons––an interesting description on the cover, a curious title, and a reasonable length––but reading the first few paragraphs helped me close the deal (although I admit it was more because the prose was easy to read than anything else). I didn’t particularly like the cover design, but it seems these days I usually don’t, so I’ve mostly stopped factoring that into my buying decisions. I also had a vague memory of the author’s name, but I wasn’t sure at the time what she had written. The book was published by Kodansha, and you can see its page on Amazon Japan here.

“To Avoid Being Swept Away by a Large Bird” is comprised of a series of stories that tell of an alternate human history (the book’s description calls this a 神話, meaning “mythology”) sweeping across thousands of years, where the world is divided into a series of mostly isolated groups in an attempt to reduce the decline of humanity. There are other rules in place, and “overseers” (my translation of 見守り) exist to help assure things are going smoothly. Along with all this are some advanced technologies, including artificial intelligence and cloning.

This setting caught my interest, and even after I finished reading stood out as a good example of skillful world-building. But this is not a sourcebook for a role-playing game; it’s a piece of literature that I expect to tell some sort of story. It’s this storytelling that I had some problems with.

One description of this book (taken from the author’s English Wikipedia page) calls it “a collection of 14 short stories”, but I’m not sure if this is accurate. Herein lies my main issue with the book: the stories are set at different times, with different characters, but there is some overlap––just enough to make me want to call these not “short stories”, but simply chapters in a novel. But ultimately I wasn’t satisfied with either categorization: I felt the stories were not gripping (or standalone) enough to be treated as completely separate short stories, nor was I able to come to terms with the book as a coherent novel with characters and a timeline. The Japanese expression “docchi ka ni shiro!” captures my feelings perfectly, and means something like “Do it this way or that way, don’t try to do both!”

I admit that reading this book in a language other than my native English made it a little hard to put together the pieces. And perhaps if I read it through a second time I would see how things fit together, and appreciate it a little more. But even then I am not sure if I would truly be able to emphasize with the characters, or the big picture. For sure, there are some interesting topics touched upon in this story, for example love, human reproduction, evolution, fear of things that are different than us, and the nature of humanity, just to name a few. But I would have been able to appreciate it all more with a bit more coherence. 

As I was reading this novel, more than a few times the phrase “experimental novel” popped into my head because it felt like the author was purposefully trying something new that hadn’t been done before. For the record I have no problem with such novels, and appreciate it when an author tries to be different. But because of the unique style of storytelling, I found it hard to appreciate the story.

One interesting and unique aspect of the book is how several of the stories were written in a completely different tone (something that fits with the “experimental novel” categorization). Some of the stories were written in a simple style with short sentences and simple vocabulary, whereas others were in a very stiff, mechanical tone, or an overly casual style.

The book’s special usage of names also seemed experimental. For example, in at least one story a first-person pronoun is used to refer to a few different people (something like “Today I saw myself come home late at night.”) Furthermore, the same name is sometimes used to refer to different characters, sometimes across a large span of time. A few characters were given Borg-like names (for example “13 of 7”) and some characters had no names at all. There were good reasons for these things, but at times they made it even harder to follow the story. To be fair, I think the reason for the odd treatment of names was probably because humanity vs. the individual was one of the key ideas of this book.

It’s difficult for me to recommend this book for most Japanese learners because the combination of styles and fragmented stories makes it extra challenging to get through. But if you have a few years of serious Japanese study and have gotten through a few simpler books, then it still might be worth a try. Even though I didn’t really get too involved in the story, I did learn many new words and expressions, and was able to appreciate the different literary styles. If you know the usual joyo kanji then I think you won’t have to look up too many characters, but even for me there were a few kanji I had never seen before, and a good amount of words I hadn’t come across before. Unfortunately, I don’t remember coming across any furigana reading hints anywhere in the book.

Another issue I had with this book was that even though it used some science fiction elements, I didn’t get the feeling they were accurately used, and a general lack of realism pervaded throughout the SF-related areas. It wasn’t that the SF elements themselves were unrealistic, but rather the mix of high-tech and low-tech. But I guess this meshes with the idea of “mythology” in the sense that the story is not supposed to be realistic.

When I was almost finished reading this book, I double-checked what other works the author had written. It turns out she had written “Manazuru”, which was a pretty interesting book that I reviewed a few years ago here. Overall I think I enjoyed that book more due to its mysterious atmosphere, despite the fact that “To Avoid Being Swept Away by a Large Bird” had a pretty interesting setting.

One final minor annoyance was the title’s relationship to the story as a whole. But I guess I can’t complain about the title since it was one of the factors that got me to buy the book. While I translated the title mostly literally in this review, I feel the significantly shorter English title “The Overseers” (or perhaps “The Watchers”) would be a more appropriate title for a handful of reasons.

To summarize, though I appreciate what Hiromi Kawakami tried to do with such a unique setting and storytelling style, it was hard for me to get emotionally involved with this book. If surreal atmospheres are your thing, I would try her “Manazuru” instead, but if you prefer creative (but not necessarily realistic) mythologies then “To Avoid Being Swept Away by a Large Bird” may be worth a read after all. This book was recently released in Japanese and isn’t available in English yet, but I am guessing a translation will be published eventually. For the time being, you can see all the books translated by this author into English here (there are a few).

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