Rating 2 stars
I first found out about Dendera at an author event at my local Waterstone’s bookshop. I’d gone along with a friend to hear Sayaka Murata speak about her novel Convenience Store Woman. For me, the presence of Yūya Satō and discussion of his novel was incidental. The host of the event thought otherwise, talking more to Satō and with more interest in Satō’s book. Satō came across as an affable chap, pleased with his sort of morality tale, sort of horror story, and I thought I’d give Dendera a try.
I found it difficult to warm to the characters. I think this was partly down to the translation, because I could feel the sense of humour and warmth that Satō had shown at the author talk lurking beneath the surface of the sterile prose. On the cover of the book is a quote from a review that mentions Elena Ferrente, and I understood what the reviewer meant by that, because all of the characters in Dendera are as difficult to like and care about as those in the sole example of Ferrente’s books that I’ve read.
The premise of the novel is that, in a remote mountain village in the snowy north of Japan, it is the custom to consign the elderly to a lonely death on the mountain at the age of 70. The reason is given that food is so scarce that population control is necessary and, once people have ceased to be productive members of society, they are expendable. So far, so Logan’s Run.
The main character, Kayu Saitō, is looking forward to dying on the mountain. Life in the village is difficult and she’s led a life of drudgery and hard labour. To die on the mountain and enter Paradise is a reward for her. We don’t have to imagine her distress at being rescued from that fate because Kayu tells us at great length how cheated she feels to find herself alive among a community of old women who have also survived their destined end and established a village of their own on the other side of the mountain. This is the titular Dendera.
The inhabitants of Dendera are separated along two lines. On one side of the debate are the Doves, who believe that they should live out the unexpected rest of their days in peace and harmony. On the other side of the debate are the Hawks, hell bent on exacting a revenge of sorts on the villagers who sent them to die on the mountain. Kayu fits with neither group. All she wants is to die the death she has lived her life hoping for.
Pretty much everyone in Dendera is judgemental, but few as judgemental as Kayu. She’s angry and blinkered and stubborn. She’s Satō’s vehicle for a moral about not accepting the status quo, but instead being open to other ways of living, to being free in thought and action, and daring to grab life by the lapels and waltz with it.
A starving bear and her cub, too hungry to hibernate, start to menace Dendera, seeing the ancient inhabitants as an easy source of food. The bear, anthropomorphised, Satō tells us, against his better judgement, acts as the vehicle for another moral, this one about having respect for nature and not being the kind of interventionist humans that upset the natural order of things. Part of the reason that villagers and bear alike are starving is because of climate change brought on by deforestation.
The leader of the village allows Satō to introduce a moral around despotism. This centenarian manipulates her fellow inhabitants at key points when her power seems to be slipping from her grasp, and she does so in violent ways. Knowing something of Japan’s own history, particularly its nationalism and imperialism, I wondered whether this was Satō commenting on the way Japanese society has sometimes been manipulated into violence against non-conformists at home and the subjugated citizens of Japanese-occupied countries.
There’s a lack of depth to Satō’s moralising that makes it clumsy and ineffective. I thought it came across as trite. It seemed to me to be a convenient peg for Satō to hang the core farce of a story on. What Satō seems to relish in his book is describing the gore that results from the clash of bear and womankind, and the snarkiness of the women who have made Dendera their home. The farce comes from Dendera being a village of women aged 70 and over who have the desire to exact revenge and the mental acuity to plan it, but lack the tools, knowledge and physical robustness to carry out their plans. It is amusing how inept they are, even when their focus is temporarily shifted from attacking the village to defending Dendera from the bear.
In the clash between bear and women, Kuya’s stubbornness comes in handy. She and the bear are kindred spirits. Each has their own belief in what constitutes the right way of doing things, each has a dogged commitment to ensuring the right way of doing things is followed. Kuya wins a minor victory over the bear, earning her the respect of Dendera’s leader and bringing her into closer companionship with some of the women.
I was more than halfway through the book before anything happened that drew me in. There is a central secret to Dendera that allows for more humanity to come through from the characters and for Satō’s vision for the book to become clearer. The book, it turns out, is an allegory for 20th century Japan and its place in the world. This revelation wasn’t quite enough to win me over, though, and after its appearance the novel collapsed into a boring series of conversations between the women that only revealed that Satō didn’t know where to go next and tried to disguise it by his characters not knowing where to go next. Around 100 pages from the end, I nearly gave up.
I don’t entirely regret pushing on and finishing Dendera, but it’s not a book that I feel I could recommend, even on the level of giving it a go if you’re curious. I continued reading in the hope that it might get better, but it was always just on the wrong side of being good.