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LONELY WOMAN, by Takako Takahashi, translated by Maryellen Toman Mori. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004, 192 pp., $24.50, (paper).

“A female demon is no mere fanciful creature,” writes Takako Takahashi in this newly translated work. “An ordinary woman can turn into a demon in an instant. She may even sprout horns. Her eyes may slant way up and turn golden. There’s nothing extraordinary about a human face doing such things.”

In fact, it is ordinary in the meticulously observed work of Takahashi, who chronicles the often demonic emotions of her heroines. It is these emotions that bind together the five short stories in this collection, all of them linked by certain characters, themes or plot elements.

One of the women admits to something that may surprise many men: She makes a date, then sits, watches him arrive and finally leave. “How much more exciting this sort of encounter was to her than actually meeting a man. She wished that she could go so far as to gaze at a man through binoculars.”

Another woman looks at her children and “was aware of how indifferent she felt toward them now. They looked like a pair of bothersome beasts that she’d never seen before.”

Yet another flirts with a little boy. “He gave her a seductive look. Just then [she] detected a milky, babyish fragrance.” The incongruity between that fragrance and the amorous glance strikes her because, at the same time, she realizes that she “wasn’t in the least bit fond of children.”

Takahashi’s women are dispassionate. One woman describes a man who has just jumped off a building and landed in front of her as “meticulously groomed.” She continues, “His hair, too, which was a bit disheveled from his jump, was obviously well cared for. His face was utterly at odds with the overall impression he made. It had smashed on the pavement and turned into a pulpy mass of flesh.”

Among the beneficial jolts of reading Takahashi’s work is not just the liberating nihilism and the fruitful transgression that we all — female or male alike — sometimes want and almost never get, but the emotional honesty that blazes away on each page.

For Takahashi’s women, almost nothing is seen in its conventional guise. The national symbol of cherry blossoms become “vulgar”: “They’re obscene. When all those cherry trees are in full bloom around the hospital wall, you can almost hear the shrieking and jabbering of the sick people coming out of the blossoms.”

These stories were written between 1974 and 1977, during which time Takahashi was also writing what her translator has called “her most relentlessly nihilistic work,” “The Tempter.” Here, “crime and illicit passion are not merely protests against conventional morality and social and gender norms but also signifiers of a nameless craving that has no earthly object.” This is because, as Takahashi herself discovered, the craving was otherworldly — religious.

Influenced by the novels of Francois Mauriac, whose characters she has called “incarnations of insane passion,” she herself (about the same time she was writing these stories) became Catholic — a Catholic very different, however, from the best known of Japan’s Christian authors, the late Shusaku Endo. There is nothing clubby or cozy about her beliefs. Takahashi turned to the more esoteric Catholicism of St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and — above all — that most honest of religious authors, Simone Weil.

A saint and a demon are not nearly so distant as is commonly thought. Far from being opposites, they are two sides of the same coin: One could not exist without the other. Takahashi writes: “It’s not that the female demon described in Japanese legends actually exists.” Rather, “the ordinary, perfectly normal woman, under certain circumstances and at certain moments can turn into one.” It is these ordinary demonic women who are examined in this extraordinary collection, which chronicles the dismantling of the individual, gendered self — a fundamentally religious process.

Though several of Takahashi’s stories have been translated (into English and German), her availability has never been commensurate with her importance. This sympathetic translation of a seminal work offers the foreign reader a coherent view of her intensely moral world — one all the more moral in that it transgresses into common immorality to make its esoteric assertions.

Maryellen Mori has provided, in addition to the translation, an illuminating introduction and an unusually full bibliography. Columbia University Press will release the volume in March. Already I am tempted to call it the most interesting translation of Japanese literature this year.

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