Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
Billed as a very Japanese novel from Quebec, The Ghost of Suzuko is just that. Quite enjoyable to read, it flirts with magical realism and takes us through the romantic liaisons a young Québécois writer has with two eccentric women. Whether this is an authentic portrayal of contemporary Japan, an attempt to encapsulate Japanese existentialism, or merely a continuation of the Western man’s fantasy with reclusive but submissive Japanese women is an open question. In any event, the plot moves along at a leisurely pace, demanding little more of the reader than to imagine the elegant descriptions of the various Tokyo venues in the novel and buy into the haunting that the protagonist feels after the death of his first lover.
Vincent Brault, an emerging writer, has returned to Tokyo from Montreal following the mysterious death of his lover, Suzuko, an iconic performance artist, who somewhat reluctantly has caught the imagination of the Japanese public. He moves into the apartment the two shared and renews contact with their small circle of artist friends. At a vernissage organized by Ayumi, Suzuko’s best friend and patron, he meets Kana, a mysterious woman whose chameleon eyelids (but not eyes) change colour every time they meet. Daily they meet, drink saki and make love in the city’s many “Love” hotels. But everywhere he sees Suzuko: in the parks, the subway, the Izakaya bars . . ., and Kana is more of a distraction than a deepening relationship. Perhaps, just a carnal surrogate or soulless reincarnation of his dead lover.
The novel is presented in two parts. The first begins with Vincent’s return to Tokyo and the evolution of his relationship with Kana. Suzuko is constantly referenced, her ghost constantly seen, but the reader learns very little about her, other than she was immensely famous in Japan and shares two friends with Vincent: Ayumi, the gallery curator, and Pavle, a Serbian artist who has lived in Japan for decades. Both friends try to console Vincent, and in doing so, offer some glimpses into who Suzuko was. Glimpses, not more. Toward the end of the first part, Kana very laconically brings Vincent to the realization that he cannot live the present with her until he closes the past with Suzuko. Or at least we think that is what is being conveyed. Part two is written as a complete retrospective of Vincent’s romance with Suzuko, her work as a taxidermist and performance artist, and his espousal of her decision to go through life wearing the head of a fox over her own. While rich in many details, the reader is still left without knowing the motivation for Suzuko’s therian existence. Was it a desire to create art? An escape from the burden of humanness? A salve for childhood trauma? And then there is Kana again. Was she real or just in Vincent’s mind: a created being to pave the way for him to rid himself of the haunting? The possibilities are bound only by the reader’s imagination.
Despite its unanswered questions, The Ghost of Suzuko is not a work of great depth or challenging prose in the tradition of Western fiction. If anything, it is an invitation for the reader to experience not analyze. Whether intended by the author or not, there is a distinct existentialism in the novel: a delving into the individual’s choice to set aside the rational and embrace the agency of free will and reconcile with the consequences of nothingness. As such, it is indeed a very Japanese novel: simple in its presentation, yet hinting at something or nothing more.
The Ghost of Suzuko was translated from French by Benjamin Hedley for Baraka Books.