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.

Taichi Yamada: Strangers – Ijin-tachi to no Natsu (1987)

A disconcerting, yet deeply satisfying novel: a wonderful study of grief and isolation, a moving expression of our longing for things we have lost and are unable to have again.

I’ve read about Strangers last year on Novroz’ blog (here is the review) and wanted to read it ever since. It’s a ghost story and as such a perfect choice for Carl’s R.I.P. challenge. But it is also so much more than just a ghost story. It’s a truly wonderful book with a haunting atmosphere, a melancholy depiction of solitude and loneliness with a surprisingly creepy ending.

I often think that the problem some people have with ghost stories is that they take them literally and if they do not believe in the possibility of an afterlife, they do not want to read them. But ghost stories can also be read as purely symbolical. Loneliness, longing and grief can affect a person deeply. Lonely children often start to talk with imaginary friends and also older people can start to talk to themselves which is actually rather a conversation with someone who is not present than a discussion with oneself.

I used to live in a huge apartment building for a while and remember that it could feel strange being awake at night when everyone else was obviously sleeping. All the lights were turned off, there were no noises. Coming home at night and seeing the building from afar, like a big ocean liner, with all the lights on, was also quite special.

Strangers starts in a building just like that. A huge apartment building on Tokyo’s noisy Route 8 where constant traffic keeps you awake and the density of the exhaust fumes forbids the opening of the windows. Most of the apartments are offices. Harada, a fortysomething TV script writer, has stranded here after his divorce. At first he can hardly sleep. The traffic noise is overpowering but after a few weeks he gets used to it. One night, despite the noise outside, he feels an intense loneliness. It seems as if he was the only person in this big building.  He finds out that there is only one other person, a woman, staying at the house at night. Everyone else leaves the place and lives somewhere else.

One night the woman, Kei, knocks on his door and wants to drink a bottle of champagne with Harada but he refuses. He regrets it and invites her a few days later. She is a beautiful woman but with a terrible burn mark where her breasts should be. While they start dating, Harada visits Asakusa, the downtown district in which he used to live with his parents. His parents died when he was very young. He never returned to the place but all of a sudden something attracts him magically. Many of the houses have been destroyed and replaced by modern ugly buildings. While walking around Harada meets a man who looks exactly like his dead father at the time of his death. He follows him to his house and there is his mother, she too is still young and looking exactly like she did before she died.

Harada knows that he shouldn’t return to see his parents but he cannot help himself. He has to go back again and again. His friends start to tell him that he is looking bad. Kei wants him to stop seeing them. He can’t and we understand why.

Something closely akin to the wonderful sense of security I’d felt at such times as a child had descended on me that night in Asakusa. I coul recall no such moments in all the years since my parents had died.

Yamada managed to write a ghost story that is at the same time an eerie tale and a realistic portrayal of loneliness, grief and the search for a meaning in life. Harada is at a turning point in his life. He has a hard time finding jobs, his wife got most of his money after the divorce, his son doesn’t want to see him, most women are not interested in a man like him. Falling in love with Kei seems not so much a choice as inevitable. They are both scarred in different ways. Meeting his dead parents is what infuses his days with meaning and warmth until he starts to pay a prize for it.

What did it amount to, anyway, this life I led? Busying myself with random tasks that popped up one after another, enjoying the moments of excitement each little sir brought before it receded into the distance, yet accumulating no lasting store of wisdom from any of it.

Strangers is an excellent ghost story and a melancholic depiction of the loneliness that living in a big city like Tokyo can bring. I really loved this book. I could hardly put it down and at the same time I didn’t want it to end.