I BLAME Yasunari Kawabata for my obsession with Japan. When I was sixteen I read his short stories ‘The House of the Sleeping Beauties’ and ‘One Arm’, and I was hooked. The first, about a lonely old man who finds a place where he can watch beautiful, naked girls sleep beside him in a comatose state, later inspired Gabriel García Márquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores. More recently, the film Sleeping Beauty, written and directed by the Australian novelist Julia Leigh, also bears an uncanny resemblance to the story’s plot.
But at sixteen I thought that Kawabata was all mine. No one I knew in Australia had read any of his works and I coveted my copy of his stories, with its traditional Japanese brown paper cover, which I had bought for twenty cents at a second-hand bookshop in Carlton. I wondered who had originally bought it and why it had been abandoned after making the journey all the way to Melbourne. The second story in the collection is a magic-realist tale about a man who meets a girl and asks if he can take her arm home with him. She detaches it for him and off he goes with the limb – under his coat, to keep it warm! It was so wonderfully odd that I started looking at my arms and wondering how they would look under men’s coats.
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