Hiroko Oyamada is fast turning into a favourite. Her writing is zany and contemporary and she is exceptionally inventive in her use of animal metaphors to portray human conditions. In her two earlier books The Factory and The Hole (both translated by David Boyd), Oyamada deploys birds, lizards and coypus and rabbits and cicadas respectively to animate the conflicts to her human characters. These animal characters gradually overshadow the human characters as the line between the feral and the civilised rapidly starts to blur. I was immensely impressed by these two books. Naturally, Weasels in the Attic was next on the list.

Male, married, middle-aged, childless

The animal-human relationship that has become synonymous with Oyamada’s fiction continues in this book. Birds, lizards, coypus, cicadas, and rabbits are replaced by tropical fishes and obviously, weasels. In The Hole, Oyamada addresses a young woman’s sudden transformation from a working woman into a housewife. In The Factory, she turns a critical eye to environmental degradation and the pointless rigours of modern capitalism.

In her latest book, Weasels in the Attic, Oyamada’s concerns are fertility, masculinity, and marriage in contemporary Japan. By making the narrator a childless married man in his 40s, Oyamada observes the anxieties of fertility from the male perspective. When the man’s wife asks him to rate on a scale of ten how desperately he wants a child, all he can do is say nothing at all. In the meantime, an acquaintance (Urabe) – jobless and a weirdo according to the narrator – and a friend (Saiki) – a heavy drinker and aloof to feminine desires – both seem to have no trouble conceiving. In fact, the pregnancies of their wives seem to be unplanned if not accidental.

Weasels’s is divided into three sections with each section representing the narrator’s (and his wife’s) encounters with his two friends (and their wives) who have been able to start a family. These meetings are not your regular wine-and-dine. The conversations turn raucous and awkward, the food and drinks on the table have been sourced from unfamiliar places, and the narrator’s veiled bitterness about his friends’ successful family lives sets everyone on the edge. The settings of these encounters are also curious – one friend lives above a dysfunctional store for exotic fish and aquarium supplies that he once used to own and the other lives in a 50-year-old country house with a weasel infestation. The aquariums and the myriad of fishes it holds fascinates the narrator and he is especially taken in by Urabe’s experiments of breeding the discus fish.

While the success of Urabe’s ichthyological experiments is dubious, he is the clear winner when it comes to the tests of masculinity – his wife is 20 years younger and quite beautiful, she persuaded him to marry her without him having to perform the complex mating dance of courtship, and now, with no difficulties, she had borne him a baby. His unemployed status and inhospitable home were minor troubles that could be easily overlooked in view of such great triumphs.

Similarly, Saiki, unmarried for the longest time and uninterested in looking for a companion suddenly gets married to a woman ten years his junior. The narrator gets to know about these developments through a New Year’s greeting card. He and his new bride – or “the wife” as Saiki calls her – move to an ancient house in the middle of the mountains. The house is spacious and the neighbours are quiet but every empty space in the house seems to be infested with weasels. And no matter how many traps are laid out, the small furry animals return day after day. The narrator observes how his friend has suddenly started to look like a “real dad”. The heavy drinker, mischievous friend of the past is gone and replaced by a man whose every decision revolves around the well-being of his baby daughter. The change is unseemly and difficult to accept. Additionally, the weasels have not returned after the birth of the baby.

Fatherhood versus masculinity

While the narrator wonders about how deserving his friends are of being fathers – he on the other hand has always babysat his sister’s children and knows just the right way to hold a baby and change the diapers – his wife easily slips into the role of a caring aunt. Even though she is miserable about not being able to conceive, she does not display any signs of doubt or envy when she sees her husband’s friend’s wife with her baby. She is happy to coo at the child and fuss over the new mother. Oyamada relieves women of the physical manifestations of the anxieties of childlessness and instead imagines how men may react when they are denied the role of being a father. Between fertility tests and ejaculating into plastic cups, Oyamada’s male protagonist makes us wonder, “What is it like for the husband when the couple cannot get pregnant?”

This question is incredibly profound in the Japanese context – on one hand, it is a deeply misogynistic society and on the other hand, the rapidly ageing population has left only so many young women of childbearing age. While playing with Saiki’s baby, his wife lets slip that women tend to warm up to every child but a man seems unable to do so unless it’s his own. The narrator finds this to be true and simply says, “Maybe it doesn’t affect us the same way. Maybe it should, but…”

In such circumstances, sexual rivalry takes a different meaning and insecurities surrounding infertility are no longer just a feminine problem. Very interestingly, the young wives of the narrator’s friends appear mysteriously and they do not have an identity beyond being young mothers. This is in stark contrast to the narrator’s wife who’s in her 40s, a working woman, and functions as an equal to her husband. If anything, he seems to not be in control of his wits and the hysteria of “motherhood” undermines his masculine authority. In the end, Weasels, with experiments in breeding tropical wishes and unending visits from the weasels, simply says that life goes on. Even when you feel robbed of your right to certain “certainties”, other people and animals will keep creating and destroying life as it fancies them.

Weasels in the Attic, Hiroko Oyamada, translated from the Japanese by David Boyd, Granta.