Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Short-a-Day: Yoko Ogawa's "Backstroke"

Originally published in A Public Space 01, Spring 2006. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 77.

If you take your time and build up slowly enough, you can get a reader to buy anything. Ogawa begins by having her protagonist announce a special affinity for pools, promising that we'll soon find out why: "I'm aware that scrutinizing the pool doesn't serve any purpose, but I just can't help myself. No matter where I am, a pool becomes a special site for me." Soon after, she finds an incongruous pool located in the ruins of a Nazi concentration camp, and promises further revelations with this: "It was the most tragic-looking pool I'd ever seen. And it was also the most similar to the pool we once had in our own backyard." Those are high stakes, and the story doesn't disappoint--mainly because it veers off in an unexpected direction.

Ogawa spends the majority of her flashback detailing this family's relationship, and how everything circles around her brother's uncanny knack for swimming: "In my memory, my brother's hair is always wet. When he wasn't swimming, my brother was usually hiding somewhere in our house.... He looked as if he believed good things would happen to him if he made himself small enough." After building this up, she shifts tactics, focusing on the mother's obsessive (and redundant) coaching, and her decision to turn their backyard into a sixty foot pool; we're told it represents hope, and we get this:

Though absurdly situated, our pool was stunning. The blue at the bottom and the color of the clear water merged beautifully, and the mixture shimmered in the sun, and in the dark of the night. Even dead leaves and bugs began to sparkle as soon as they fell in the water, as if they had become something special and charmed.
And then the story shifts again: on the day that her two-years-younger brother is supposed to go to the Olympics, he shows up for breakfast with his left arm rigidly held up in the air, and he never sets it down again. After five years of inexplicable atrophy, he goes swimming--at his sister's request--and the limb floats off like so much wood. The symbolism's not entirely clear to me--at the broadest level, it represents the collapse of a family--but it's a surprising event in a charming and well-written story about the peculiar types of madness that determine why we do what we do. (Is it any odder to swim day after day after day than to hold one's arm up day after day after day, save that one is deemed--by society--to be more normal than the other?)

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