Saturday, 17 September 2016

Kurt the Wednesday Child

I've already reviewed several books by 大井三重子 (OOI Mieko), the writer of  the collection of children's stories, 水曜日のクルト (suiyoubi no Kuruto, Kurt of Wednesday, 1961); but they were books under a different name and in a different character, as the postwar detective story writer NIKI Etsuko. She had been trying to establish herself as a children's writer when she won the Edogawa Rampo prize for her first detective novel 猫は知っていた (The Cat Knew, 1957), a genre with which she had more success. The stories gathered in this collection are fairy tale type fantasies of various kinds.

The title story, 'Kurt the Wednesday Child', is not one of the strongest, in my opinion. A children's illustrator after meeting a young boy on a Wednesday mysteriously loses items and as mysteriously regains them, while losing other ones. Like all the stories in the collection it is engagingly narrated and inventive; but the invention here is very diffuse, a bundle of different ideas that don't really connect. The style felt a little like a dilute version of MIYAZAWA Kenji's style in the stories in 注文の多い料理店 (chuumon no ooi ryouriten, The Restaurant of Many Orders, 1924).

The second story, 'The Memoir Art Gallery', is a well worked out story that perhaps does not add up to much more than its central, not very surprising, metaphor. The main character, a young boy, finds an art gallery that anyone can visit, but each visitor can only enter one room. The paintings in that gallery all depict people and incidents important to the visitor, whether welcome or not.

The third, 'The Life of a Puddle', is another piece that somewhat predictably follows a familiar genre, in this case the slightly moralising narration of the life of an inanimate object.

'The Story of the Mysterious Water Ladle' is a long and quite lively story of a good hearted cobbler, who is given a magical ladle by a homeless wanderer he invites in. The cobbler wants to give shoes to the poor children in his neighbourhood, but the pair he has just made for one boy is the first he has been able to afford to make in months. The stranger has him plant the shoes, then water them with the ladle. The next day a tree with shoes instead of fruit is growing in the garden. The cobbler plants hat trees and coat trees to make presents for his neighbours, but attracts the attention of the country's king, who confiscates the ladle and finds a horrible new use for it. The ideas in the story are again very familiar, but they combine well to make an interesting story with unexpected plot developments. In this story, Ooi makes the narrator a character, a grandfather visiting his grandchildren.

Unlike the cheerful stories that make up most of the collection, 'The Blood Coloured Cloud' is an unhappy story about war. From the harbour wall a girl sends a piece of paper out towards the horizon where she can see a pink cloud. On the paper she had written 'To the person beneath the pink cloud, please be my friend, Lily.' One day a little sea plane arrives with a boy who had found the letter, a cadet in the neighbouring country's airforce; but on the same day trucks roll through the town with loudspeakers announcing the start of hostilities with that country. Soon Lily's two brothers are called up to fight. This is clearly a more personal story (the author lost one brother in the second world war).

'The Conserve Jars of Things that Are or Could Be' returns to more whimsical magic. An old witch rewards a shopkeeper by making a set of jamjars which contain anything he or his family might need. When they have fulfilled all their needs they start giving away the remaining jars to customers. A girl from the neighbouring town makes friends with a rich invalid boy when his family accidentally leave him unattended and she shows him a nearby wood where they can gather acorns. Much later, learning that the boy is expected to die, she sets off to walk to the shop, hoping to give him one of the magic jars; but there is now only one left, which no other customer had wanted to take.

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