Hiroko Oyamada’s novel “The Hole” is a complex story dressed in an easy-going style.
Asahi’s husband, Muneaki, is transferred to a branch office not far from his childhood home in rural Japan. His parents have two houses on their plot, one of which they offer to the couple rent-free. Asahi gives up her office job, says goodbye to her friends and becomes a housewife. With no children, no car and a spouse who rarely makes appearances throughout the story, her days are largely empty and listless.
Translated by David Boyd
NEW DIRECTIONS PUBLISHING
One day, while walking to the convenience store, she sees a strange black animal and, curious and not having anything else to do, follows it off the road and falls into a hole.
“It was probably four or five feet deep, but I’d managed to land on my feet … Trying to move, I realized how narrow the hole really was. It almost felt as though the hole was exactly my size — a trap made just for me,” Asahi muses.
Anyone familiar with Oyamada from “The Factory,” her first work translated to English, will not be surprised by this strange turn of events, nor the matter-of-fact way in which both narrator and main character confront it. Oyamada’s writing is often described as Kafkaesque, and while this can be lazy shorthand for “strange,” it is an adjective that accurately applies to “The Hole.” Kafka’s MO was to take a metaphor and treat it as real — a man literally turning into an insect — and that is what Oyamada does here. Society creates a hole — narrow and restrictive — and before you know it, you have fallen in and can’t get out. Asahi’s neighborhood is full of holes, but only one of them is “a trap made just for (her).”
“The Hole” is concerned with the plight of women in Japan. In fact, you couldn’t ask for a more concise, moving and subtly angry study of the pressures and expectations placed on women by Japanese society. The neighbors refer to Asahi as “the bride,” reducing her whole existence to her marital status, and make harsh assumptions about the absence of children. Her husband, on the rare occasion he is home, spends all his time on his phone and complains about her cooking. Her mother-in-law, while outwardly friendly and caring, quietly asserts her dominance over Asahi.
The only relationships in which Asahi has some agency is with her husband’s possibly senile grandfather and her brother-in-law, a self-acknowledged good-for-nothing who is never mentioned by the family and lives in the garden shed, spending his time collecting and bottling centipedes with the local children.
It takes a writer of great talent to mold the banality of the everyday into the stuff of art, and to build an entire world around a metaphor other writers might quickly deploy and cast aside, but Oyamada is in complete control of her talent. “The Hole” is the work of a writer flexing their muscles and preparing for something truly profound.