Taichi Yamada: In Search of a Distant Voice – Toku no koe wo sagashite (1986)

Last year I read Taichi Yamada’s Strangers and it was one of the best books I’ve read that year. It haunted me for weeks. The mood, the atmosphere, it was beautiful and sad at the same time. I knew that it wasn’t his first book but the first to be translated into English. There are two other of his novels available in English one of which is In Search of a Distant Voice.

Just like Strangers, Yamada’s older novel In Search of a Distant Voice is a ghost story. But what a peculiar ghost story. Tsuneo works as an immigration officer in Tokyo. This means he chases illegal immigrants, takes part in raids, arrests people and sends them back to their country. Early on in the novel we learn that he has complex emotions which he fights and tries to repress. Some of them are linked to his professional life, some to his personal, very lonely life and another part has something to do with an incident which lies back ten years and took place in Portland, Oregon.

At the opening of the novel, Tsuneo has to get up in the middle of the night and take part in a raid to arrest Bangladeshi immigrants on the outskirts of Tokyo near a cemetery.

First he was overcome by a sense of foreboding. A second self would realize this back-and-forth was just part of the program. And the he would notice that even this realization itself was part of a ritual he had performed many hundreds of times. He was used to holding back moods. Keeping his feelings suppressed. Today, too, everything was happening as it always did.

When he runs after one of the immigrants and wants to arrest the man in the cemetery he is suddenly overwhelmed by an intense feeling which he cannot define at first but seems to be of an intense sexual nature. Tsuneo is delighted and shocked at the same time about the intensity of this experience. Something, a ghost, he thinks has flooded him with his or her emotions. When he returns home that day, he starts to hear the voice of a woman who speaks to him. At first he thinks he is going mad but then he is sure the voice is outside and not inside of his head. And although nobody else hears her, she seems real. It’s like having a phone conversation, only with a ghost.

Tsuneo’s has a lot on his mind these days. He feels pity for those people he arrests and he is wary of the arranged marriage he has agreed to. He is not in love with the woman but she isn’t a bad choice. But the more the book progresses, the more Tsuneo talks to the invisible woman, the more absurd the arranged marriage seems to be. He has a hard time to suppress his feelings and during the engagement ceremony when everyone is performing meaningless gestures and speaking empty words he starts to laugh uncontrollably and in the end breaks down and cries.

There is too much, Tsuneo has never told anyone. What happened in Portland for example or why he even went there. He cannot talk to his fiancée about that nor about the voice but he opens up to that invisible woman and tells her everything, the whole tragic episode that happened in Portland.

More than a ghost story, this is the portrait of a man who, at only 29, has given up on his hopes and dreams, who has repressed all of his feelings but cannot cope anymore. It’s the story of a breakdown, an analysis of guilt, suppressed sexuality, loneliness and search for meaning. There is a moving scene in which Tsuneo tells his friend that his life is completely meaningless. The friend is quite affected and answers that if this was the case, then his life would be meaningless as well.

It’s a flawed book as the end of the ghost story is not as satisfying as in Strangers – and the book is certainly pale in comparison to Strangers – but it’s still a very interesting book.  There are many beautiful scenes and reflections and I don’t think I’ve read a lot of novels which dealt as powerfully with the two complementary themes “strangers” and “immigrants” as this book. I didn’t love it as much as Strangers but I liked it too.

There is a third book available in English I Haven’t Dreamt of Flying for a While which I’d like to read as well.

The review is a contribution to Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 6 and Carl’s R.I.P. VII.