Mrs. Murakami’s Garden

Mario Bellatin, trans. Heather Cleary

December 15, 2020 
The following is from Peruvian-Mexican writer Mario Bellatin's Mrs. Murakami's Garden, translated by Heather Cleary. The novel is an allegorical novel following the widowed keeper of a mysterious garden, taking place in a strange, not-quite-real Japan of the author’s imagination. Bellatin is the author of dozens of prize winning novels which have been translated into 21 languages. He lives in Mexico City.

During her years as a married woman, Mrs. Murakami often waited up for her husband into the small hours of the morning. On that particular day, everything was ready for his arrival by the early evening. She had arranged the details of his dinner with Shikibu. Mr. Murakami was very fond of somobono, the way his family made it once the restrictions on eating eel were lifted. Despite her efforts, Mr. Murakami rarely ate dinner at home. He would sometimes disappear for days at a time. Mrs. Murakami would dress to please her husband, though it did little good. Most often, she would put on one of the iridescent robes he brought home for her. Mr. Murakami never revealed the source of the clothing, but his absences did not make her suspect he was being unfaithful. His secret seemed to be a bungalow he was having built in the woods. He never admitted it, but Mrs. Murakami knew that the little structure had long been a dream of his, and that he had never been able to do anything about it while he was married to the honorable and sickly Shoshatsu-Tei. She also knew that it had been constructed according to a design brought over from Europe many years earlier. Curiously, despite the nature of their marriage, Mrs. Murakami waited impatiently each night for her husband’s return.

The somobonos the elderly servant prepared nearly always went to waste. She knew in advance that they would likely go uneaten, so she never bothered to use the right ingredients. It seemed absurd to her to go from one market to the next in search of sweet jelly for a dish no one would ever taste, so she made fake somobonos, like the ones displayed in the windows of certain restaurants. Shikibu was remarkably energetic for her age. The passage of time was really only visible in her face, which she occasionally powdered to an opaque white. The powder would wear o as the day progressed, and little flakes would fall into the food she was preparing.

Another of Mr. Murakami’s favorite meals, along with eel somobono, were rolls made of seaweed and rice, a simple recipe that sparked much conversation among the servants. These dishes were known for maintaining sexual vigor. In families with older heads of household, the help would go to great lengths to find especially concentrated seaweed. Shikibu toasted it until it was crisp. Then she cooked it with the rice. The steamers she used were always made of metal. Her mother had taught her how to cook with them. There had been one in the house before, also imported, but it had been made of bamboo. It arrived in a package with instructions written in strange characters, which Mr. Murakami’s father was able to decipher after several attempts. Sometimes the rolls were served with tutsomoro or jiru-matsubae. Her family had prepared food this way for generations. In those years, Mr. Murakami’s father still had ties to Japan. The elderly servant spoke more than once with Mrs. Murakami about her memories from that time. Back then, certain members of the family would take long trips to the islands. Shikibu never heard them speak of the place again after word got out that the country was in ruins.

Mr. Murakami almost always ate the same number of rolls. He even kept the habit up while he was living abroad and when he returned and married the honorable and sickly Soshatsu-Tei. While traveling through Europe, he got the address of an out-of-the-way restaurant where a corpulent woman made the rolls. More than once he ordered them with pork instead of jiru-matsubae. Mr. Murakami didn’t mind the distance from his lodgings to the little restaurant, and made the trip several times each week. Usually in the afternoon. On his way, he’d pass Kinderschwartzplatz and the zoo, his favorite places for a stroll.

One year before the wedding, Izu’s mother woke her on an unusually cold morning. It was the end of winter.

Alarmed, she pointed to the thick layer of ice that had formed over the stream in the garden. She’d heard on the radio that all activities in the city had been suspended. Just a few days earlier, Izu’s mother had told her she was thinking of lighting the lanterns in the trees to symbolize the family’s return to normal life. Etsuko had stored the early winter kimonos with mothballs weeks before. That morning, however, Izu’s mother seemed worried the weather would last for months. She mentioned another winter that had gone on for a year. It was a bad omen. During that time, criminal charges were brought against Izu’s father in the violent deaths of two store employees. He was also accused of secretly organizing games of three white stones against three black stones. Only when the sun’s rays warmed their home again were they able to free themselves from the flood of subpoenas and paperwork. Izu’s father spent a few weeks in jail. He was absolved of wrongdoing, having paid great sums to the families of the victims. Soon thereafter appeared the first signs of his illness.

When her mother woke her that morning, Izu didn’t understand why she had imagined Mr. Murakami getting out of bed in the cold. She had seen him in his pajamas, heading toward the part of the house where his collection was displayed. He must have wanted to see it in the light of an icy day. He was probably passing through, against the backdrop of frosted windowpanes, looking at each piece.

A few minutes later, Izu told Etsuko that she wouldn’t be able to give her father his treatment as usual that morning. She asked her to help her mother with it and reminded her to remove the towel next to the futon. When Etsuko looked at her mystified, Izu said that she planned to go out immediately, despite the cold. That she was going to Mr. Murakami’s house. Etsuko begged her not to go, especially on a morning like that one. Paying no attention, Izu ordered her to bring her one of her early winter kimonos. Etsuko did not move. She did not look at Izu, but rather at her own feet, in their white woolen socks. Izu had to repeat her instructions.

“Hurry and unpack my amber kimono. I know we’re supposed to wait until next winter, but it doesn’t matter.” She went on. “Don’t tell anyone I went out. Say I’m in here working to meet a deadline.”

She would have liked to ask Etsuko to go with her, but the doctor had insisted that going even one day without his exercises could cost her father his life. As she watched Etsuko move toward the closet, she changed her mind and asked for the kimono she had worn on her first visit to the collection. It was not as warm, but she remembered the impression it had left on Mr. Murakami. She also asked her to bring her fox fur coat.

Traffic was terrible that morning. The suspension of activities announced on the radio was far from evident. Many cars had stalled because of the snow, and several others had collided after sliding on the ice. The city’s orange trucks could do little to improve the condition of the streets. Some residents cleared the snow that had accumulated on their doorsteps themselves. This was all great fun for the children. Schools were closed that day, and some of them built snowmen in front of their houses. Along the way, Izu could make out the figures of the wild youth Kintar and the vicious, fearsome Tatsumaki. Though girls were generally not allowed to make snowmen, Izu’s father had permitted it. Her favorite had been Ketsamono, the sprite who lost both his arms playing the game of three white stones against three black stones in paradise. Some parents seemed not to have heard in time about the closings, and had taken their children to school. Without realizing it, they had left them standing bewildered at the locked doors. To keep the household from noticing her absence, before she left Izu asked Etsuko to set up a game of Go after the morning exercises and breakfast were finished, and to invite her mother to play.

Izu got lost twice. She turned onto a busy avenue, thinking that Mr. Murakami’s house was on the next corner. Instead, she found a modern building with a store selling prepared foods on the ground floor. People ate standing up at a long counter inside. Displayed in the windows facing the street were plates of sushi, ramen, and mategeshin made of wax. She thought some of them looked appetizing. She reflected on the importance of appearances. Her reasoning was simple, not at all the way she imagined it should be after the courses in aesthetics she’d taken at the university and the relationship she recently established with Master Matsuei Kenzo and Mizoguchi Aori. She walked until she reached a park where the leaves released drops of water as they thawed.

Izu finally arrived at Mr. Murakami’s house and seemed to regret the morning’s expedition. She had downplayed the importance of her visit on the way there. When she noticed an old woman riding a bicycle through the park despite the weather, she was overcome by a sense of calm that seemed to protect her from the cold. Standing on the sidewalk across from the house, she did not know what to do. The black car was parked out front. The chauffeur had clearly just cleaned it, as there were no traces of snow or ice on the pavement around the vehicle. Izu remained on the sidewalk across from the house. Looking at the ground floor, she was surprised to see a light on; that morning she had imagined Mr. Murakami going through his collection almost in the dark. She had pictured him observing the contrast between the objects and the icy glimmer of dawn. The light was coming from the gallery. The curtains were drawn in all the other windows. Izu looked for a long time at the uncovered window, and realized the light was coming from a bulb. Strange. The collection should only be lit by small alcohol lamps.

But there was a light on. Only after a few moments did Izu notice several men on the other side of the window. She recognized the silhouette of Mr. Murakami’s perfectly bald head. Her view was suddenly blocked by a cargo truck that had parked behind the black car. Izu waited a few seconds, unable to see anything but the truck. She decided to leave. The morning’s weather showed no sign of improving, and an even more biting cold was coming in from the south. Feeling it on her skin, she realized she hadn’t eaten breakfast. She had even refused the cup of tea that Etsuko offered her as she got ready. She passed the store with the wax window display again. The winter that lasted a year had required extreme measures to be taken. Some families wired their homes for electricity so they could heat them better. Izu thought of Tanizaki Junichiro, who suggests in In Praise of Shadows that such a modification could destroy the unique spirit of Eastern homes. That year, legal issues had plagued her parents. Izu had known the store employees who’d died after the game of three white stones against three black stones. She had seen them playing down in the basement more than once. It took her a long time to understand why her family had suddenly converted the basement of the store into a section devoted to gourmet products imported from Japan. Despite everything, her father was thrown in jail. His lawyers managed to get the case dismissed by paying damages to the families of the victims and appealing to tradition. After much deliberation, the judges seemed to agree about preserving ancient customs, and even passed laws regulating the game of three white stones against three black stones to guarantee the players’ safety.

While Izu thought back on the events of that year the temperature dropped, she bumped into Etsuko, who was headed in the opposite direction. She was wearing the coat Izu had given her six months earlier. In order not to oend her, Izu usually left her gifts of used clothing on Etsuko’s tatami. The coat had been bright yellow when Izu bought it. It was made of a plasticized fabric and came from a store downtown where Izu often shopped. Over time the coat’s color lost its intensity, but also grew somehow more appealing than before. Izu gave it to her one morning after organizing her closet. Etsuko was wearing the coat buttoned, so Izu had no way of knowing what she had on underneath. Her schoolgirl’s shoes did not go with the coat at all. Izu used to wear it with a pair of black leather boots she had purchased specifically for the purpose. She still had the boots. She wore them to accompany her mother on her annual pilgrimage to Moon Valley.


From Mrs. Murakami’s Garden by Mario Bellatin, translated by Heather Cleary. Used with the permission of the publisher, Deep Vellum. English copyright 2020 by Heather Cleary.

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