Sunday, November 19, 2017

The whole of human life is contained in books

"The whole of human life is contained in books" and that's especially true of The Master Key, by Masako Togawa. It's a cross-section of the lives inhabiting a ladies-only apartment building, more like a series of interconnected stories than a novel.
At the age of twenty-five, instead of marrying a young man, she settled down as receptionist manageress of an apartment block full of young women. Day in and day out she sat at the front desk, dreaming her dreams, and determined to better herself. She would watch the young ladies of her own age going out to their work, and she would secretly read and read — several books a day, sometimes, keeping them hidden on her knee under the desk. Well, the whole of human life is contained in books. Love, desire, success and failure, death and grief... they're all there, in the world of books.

So she went on sitting at that desk, and her straight little back gradually began to bend a bit, but still she went on reading books and fed and nourished her mind in that way. And one day, before she had time to notice what had happened, she woke up to find that she was forty years old. Suddenly the shadow of tragedy passed over her at that moment — she didn't know why it was so, but she felt it, and that's what matters.
This is a quiet book of small and forgotten mysteries, the secrets of women's pasts.

The Master Key was originally published in Japan in 1962, and it has justly survived as a classic, to be reissued by Pushkin Press. Apart from a very few details (like the very fact of a ladies-only apartment building), it remains timeless and universal.

This is not a conventional mystery, with a detective investigating a clear criminal situation, and it may not be for everyone. You will not get a linear narrative and complete resolution. But there is an unsolved kidnapping, a stolen violin, a hoarder, a cross-dresser, a cult, a séance, and a missing master key. And a prowling cat.

As engineers prepare to shift the building about four metres along rails to make way for a widened road, the foundations are laid bare and the building's secretes begin to come to light. More a character study of a building's inhabitants than action-driven, The Master Key is smart and elegant and demure like its residents.

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