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.

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

  1. It sounds like a haunting book in more ways than one. I’ll have to keep an eye out for this author. It might be better for me to read this one, before Strangers.

  2. Nice review, Caroline! I remember reading your review of Yamada’s ‘Strangers’ and liking it very much. It is interesting that he is a specializes in ghost stories 🙂 I like the main premise of ‘In Search of a Distant Voice’. Portland, Oregon is one of my favourite places in the world 🙂 I don’t know how illegal Bangladeshi immigrants get into Japan. Isn’t Bangladesh far from Japan?

    • That’s interesting. It must be nice then, Portland? He doesn’t write a lot about the city as such, it’s more about what happened there. It’s not one of the cities people I know who went to the US, including myself, every went to. So I wasn’t aware that it’s special. bangladesh is quite far away but they seem to have immigrants from everywhere in Japan and it sounds quite dramatic.
      I think the third novel is alos a ghost story. They are really speacial stories not at all like the ghost stories I know.

      • I have to confess that I have never been to Portland. But one of my best friends is from Portland and she keeps telling me about her favourite city and I have fallen in love with it. it is one of the places that I would love to visit and maybe live for a while. There is a book called ‘The Mozart Season’ by Virginia Euwer Woolf which is set in Portland and it is a beautiful book – both for the story as well as for the setting. There is a Morgan Freeman movie called ‘Feast of Love’ where most of the story happens in the Portland State University. If you would like to explore Portland a little bit, you might like these. I agree with you that many people visiting the US don’t visit Portland, but I think it is one of the undiscovered treasures in the Pacific northwest.

        • I get you. I love New York but have never been there. They are our favourite dream destinations. Usually when I finally visit a place like that it’s mostly pretty much like I thought it would be.
          I’m curious about Postland now and it could be an undiscovered treasure. The US are so big, it’s hard to visit all and people always go to the famous places first.
          Thanks for the movie and book suggestions.

  3. Hi, Caroline. Your work is a constant revelation and recommendation for hte literary life. I hope to read all of the things you’ve recommended some day, but I doubt I’ll ever catch up. How not to be discontented with myself is the constant work of the days.

  4. I love really moody and atmospheric ghost stories. When I think about it, it really is only a frightening mood and sense of dread that I really find scary. To me for a horror story to work, that mood is a prerequisite.

    This one also sounds like it has great character development.

    • Yamada’s books are not the usual ghost stories. The ghost stands for something else. You could even interpret it as a psychotic episode as he is under such a lot of stress and lonely. I like it that Yamada leaves it open. They are books which could appela to people who don’t normally read ghost stories.

  5. I absolutely loved Strangers. I sent my copy to Carl, and now I selfishly wish I’d kept it for myself :), because it is worthy of a reread. Can’t wait to pick up this one you highlighted for us!

    • I couldn’t have parted with my copy of Strangers. It made my best of last year and it was an excellent reading year. This is paler in coparison but I find it has a lot of interesting elemenst and scenes. I’m very curious to see what you will think of it.

    • That’s exacatly what it is. The ghost can be a lot of different things. Even in Strangers although there is an explanation. Strangers is a fantastic book. If you like that type of mix, atmoshperic and melancholic, you will love it. Let me know if you get to it.

  6. I do not often read ghost stories, but Lafcadio Hearn’s 19th C. Japanese ghost stories piqued my interest, and then I read a few of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Victorian ghost stories, and this writer sounds like a good way to read something contemporary. Strangers sounds good.

    • I hope you will read Strangers. It made an incredible impression. I tend to forget books relatively easily, but I still remember most of it very well. It has really strong pictures.
      I’ve read your Gaskell review yesterday but didn’t get a chance to comment (wrong computer…). I didn’t even know she wrote ghost stories and on the Salem witches at that. I’ll have to find a copy and will look for Lafcadio Hearn as well. Thanks.

  7. I read Strangers a couple of years ago. To me it is about the hold the dead have on the living. I liked the relationship of the central character to his ghost parents but the romance in the novel seemed a bit forced. Like it was added so the book could have some sex. I would read more of his work and the work you reviewed sounded very interesting

    • I agree, the hold the dead have is a very importnat theme. After reading this novel I would say repressed sexuality is another of his key themes. There are some quite explicit scenes here. What I liked about Strangers as well is that there really are two ghost stories and they are very different. I liked them both. I’d be interested to hear whether you like this one.

  8. I’ve added both this and Strangers to my wish list. I almost added his last translated book as well but thought two was enough – and there’s more than enough books on my wish list already!
    I love the idea of the ghost representing a lot of different things, it seems like it depends on who the reader is.

  9. oh…I have read this…or more precise half read it 😉

    Glad I didn’t finish it because you said it’s pale in comparison to strangers. I like strangers but this distant voice was so slow and made me sleepy.

    I am not sure you remember me posting about my unfinished book. It’s good you’re still able to finish it.

  10. This sounds really good as did the first book by Taichi Yamada you read (and I probably said then that I would add it to my wishlist!). Now I am doing the same thing with this book–will add it to my wishlist. There was an interesting looking book on the Orange longlist a few years ago that dealt with immigrants in London that I have on my pile (the title escapes me at the moment). It sounds like perfect reading for Fall–ghost stories very much complement my mood at the moment!

    • It is, quite unique and different. He just has a way of sneaking in very modern themes and combining them with ghost stories. Quite uncanny. I really love the mood he creates. Still, Strangers is the better book.

  11. This, and Strangers, sound so interesting. I haven’t been to Portland for years, but know people who’ve been recently and they love it. Great food, beautiful scenery and an incredible bookstore called Powell’s City of Books with more than one million new and used books. You have to go there for the bookstore alone, Caroline! I believe it’s the biggest in the U.S.

    • I start to have a lot of reasons for wanting to go to Portland! I looked at pictures after Vishy commented and it does look quite special. Three of the cities whch are really high up on my – I need to visit them lists are New York, Boston and New Orleans… I will have to see if any of those is close to Portland.
      Both books are interesting and different but Strangers made a major impression. It’s really an amazingly beautiful book.

  12. I don’t seem to have much luck reading Japanese authors, although I do keep trying! I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this one, but I will definitely try and get hold of Strangers, as it seems to have made a much stronger impression on you. I’m not sure what it is about Japanese Lit that doesn’t quite hit the spot with me, maybe it’s the element of “weirdness” in so many of them that I don’t get along with. IQ84 nearly made me lose the will to live. 🙂

    • Murakami is quite different. It’s hit or miss with him, I like some but not others. I usually like the very quiet atmosphere in Japanese books, the melancholy. I don’t find that in Murakami so much. Oh that IQ84 I think I’ll never even try to read it. I saw your’s and Tony’s reactions…that was quite enough. Try Strangers or if you can find Atoda’s short stories The Square Persimmon. Amazing. Or maybe the classics would appeal more to you. Maybe not Mishima. I find him very weird.

  13. Loved Strangers, liked this, agree that it’s not as strong as strangers, but it still has that element that hooks you into the tale. Another one worth a go is I haven’t dreamed of flying for a while. by this writer

    • I felt exactly the same. I loved Strangers and liked this one. Good to know the third is wort reading as well. It seems out of print though. I really want to read it as well.

  14. I feel a bit like Violet about Japanese Lit.

    Strangers is available in French but not this one. I’m not sure I’d like it, the ghost story side of it doesn’t appeal to me. But still, your reviews show there is more to his books than just the ghost story aspect.

    Why does he use this? Is it a literary trick for him or is it rooted in his culture?

    • I’m not sure why he uses this at all. But there were supernatural elments in almost all the Japanese books I’ve read. I don’t think it’s that literal though, it’s rather a way to speak about very deep emotions. But that’s just my impression. Occasionally it can be literal

  15. I think Japanese literature is very intriguing and courageous in the way it seeks to depict fantastical events, or at least, experiences, emotions, memories and strange unclassifiable parts of life that all resist concrete depiction and explanation. I’m very interested in all of that. However, clearly Strangers is the place to start with this particular author.

    • Yes, I would say unless you want to embark on a long Japanese journey, you should start with Strangers. But other authors do similar things, all with their own trademarks added to the mix. It’s certainly one of the literatures of the world I like best.

  16. I like the sound of Strangers – but wonder if I start with that first then I won’t want to read this if it pales in comparison. Mmm, decisions, decisions. Think I’ll probably go with Strangers.
    Thanks for that.
    Lynn 😀

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