Book Review of Life Ceremony
by Ananya Sarkar
Trans. by Ginny Tapley Takemori
Pages 266, Price INR 599A Book That Questions Reality
Bestselling Japanese author Sayaka Murata's latest book in English translation, Life Ceremony is a short story collection fascinating in its transgressive outreach. With thirteen stories that range from vignettes to longish tales, the author of the acclaimed Convenience Store Woman (2016, English tans. in 2018) here too questions what is "normal" and "acceptable". Characterized by her detached style of writing, Murata sieves through cultural norms and prods the reader to evaluate reality through the constantly evolving lenses of time and perspective. The result is a delightful, entertaining and thought-provoking page turner.
The title story ‘Life Ceremony’ is set in a time when a celebratory life ceremony comprising a feast of the deceased is the norm. Surprisingly, the idea of consuming human flesh was considered denigrating some thirty years back and the narrator of the story, Maho, had even been reprimanded for joking about it as a kid. Now, when propriety has turned on its head, Maho finds it hard to come to terms and even feels somewhat betrayed by the society. What is more, whereas acts of consummation were earlier carried out in private, the new society encourages young people to find "insemination partners" among the guests in a life ceremony and later openly consummate in the streets. Given the severely dwindling population, the birth of a child, even out of wedlock and without the conventional family setup, is upheld as a great service to the human race. Through the drastic change in values, the author subtly highlights the fickleness of society. The key, however, is not to see the world in absolutes but "enjoy yourself in this momentary world of lies" as Maho's friend, Yamamoto tells her.
Similarly, in ‘A First-Rate Material’, a woman tries to cope with her fiancé’s hatred for all items made from human remains, be it her favourite 100% human hair sweater, a fingernail pin, fashionable bone rings or even bone furniture. While she considers human products to be making the most of the deceased and in tune with the trending fashion, her partner is repulsed by the phenomenon. However, when a moving event brings about a change in the man’s heart, we find him gently advocating the very thing he detested. This again, highlights the fluidity of our values and mores.
The strange and macabre is at times infused with humour which makes it a fun experience. This is seen in 'A Magnificent Spread' where various odd cuisines are brought together. These include trendy pre-made health foods, fast food, stewed bugs and exotic dishes like dandelions boiled in orange juice. Each cuisine has its own advocate and follower and they are all unable to bring themselves to try any other food. This leads them to the valuable realization that "we don't have to eat out of the same pot to understand each other".
Murata also normalizes aberrations with deftness and poise, which helps us submerge in the story as easily as any other ordinary contemporary setting. Thus, a bedroom curtain becomes the object of fondness and attachment of a young girl and is later entangled in complexities when it grows jealous of her lover. Somewhere else, a woman struggles to reconcile her disparate personalities and come across as a sane person to her fiancé. A girl moves with her father to a faraway country where nobody sleeps, thanks to the magic sand flying from the other side of the cliff. Two schoolgirls keep a seemingly disoriented man as a secret pet in a hut on the mountain. A pair of best friends cohabitate platonically for four decades and raise three daughters between them in the face of society's constant judgement. In all the stories, Murata adds a twist at the end that jolts us in overt and covert ways. This, in turn, makes it all the more enjoyable.
Despite their oddity, each of the characters arouses in us compassion and empathy. They have an air of familiar comfort that make us feel at ease as we examine the increasingly blurry contours between right and wrong, the acceptable and detestable in a constantly changing world.
On the flip side, the characters can at times seem simply as vehicles of ideas and distinct ways of thinking. But given the brevity of the short story as a genre, there may have been little choice to explore concepts in other ways.
The book cover with the human eye presented as an edible candy serves to immediately grab our attention. It is germane to the eponymous story where the body parts of the deceased are consumed in a feast. Also, the image in itself underscores the strange and "anti-normal", so to speak, that manifest in the stories.
Unsettling, entertaining and exploratory in nature, Life Ceremony compels us to delve deeper into cultural norms that bind, determine and impact our being. What does it feel like to be a little bit different in a homogenous world that constantly rewards conformity? Does it hurt and irk? Or does it inspire the oddball characters to create an alternate society? The answer is elusive and invites much thought. But the bottom line gleams forth much like a bedrock of diamond – "normal" is entirely relative.***