I hope that we can get away with re-reads for the A to Z list. I’ve been meaning to re-read this book for some time now, and the letter Y seems as good a reason as any. I read this book before I even had a copy of Death of a Salaryman (my review) and the contrasts between Yamada’s sparse descriptions of television production team socialisation and Campbell’s belaboured exaggerations are possibly one of the things that so upset me when I read her book.
The main character, Harada, has recently divorced. It is approaching the O-bon festival of the dead(find out more at wikipedia), and he is living in a rented apartment building in Tokyo. As the narrative begins, Harada observes that the building is unnaturally silent; these apartments are mainly hired as day offices, and he is perhaps the only person who stays overnight. In a very liminal stage in his life – middle aged, his personal and work relationships changing and adrift, he is isolated – Harada meets a woman who also inhabits the strange half-life of the apartment block after hours. He is drawn to his childhood neighbourhood, Asakusa, and while reminiscing about the death of his parents and the home-life he once had, he meets a man and woman who look just like his young parents must have before their deaths.
This is, as the flyleaf asserts, the first of Mr. Yamada’s books to be translated into English. It was published in Japan in 1987, and took until 2003 to be published in the US, 2005 in the UK. I’m not sure if I’m glad, because the translation balances cultural context and storytelling quite well, or regretful that I didn’t get the chance to meet this book earlier in my life. Faber and Faber did a good job of the cover, and although stiff the dustcover and plain yellow paperback are a little reminiscent of the smaller pulpier mass-market Japanese paperback this may have been in 1987. It made for a nice tactile experience.
This is another of these books whose ending I cannot really gather the courage to spoil. There are hints and symbols that really make it worth a re-read, especially if you go into your first time without much background on the O-bon festival and the nature of the spirits of the dead in Japanese folk-tales. But the most compelling part of this book is not the spiritual or supernatural themes and symbolism; it is the way that the relationships and rapport Harada has with the dead in his life are portrayed. The ways that his encounters with the young couple in Asakusa heal the shock and heartbreak caused by his parents’ sudden deaths in his childhood parallel the way that his relationship with the woman in his apartment block heals him from his numbed and detached divorce proceedings. There’s more than just simply alive and dead in this story, there’s many shades of grey, including the ways that social distance arises between Harada and his colleagues, his son, and his ex-wife. This is what interested me most.
There’s also a something to the in-character perception of metaphysical differences between life and death, and the ways that ghostliness is portrayed; how, after all, can a ghost get a mosquito bite?
Judging from other book reviewers, the Japanese culture (card games, food, the death festival) did not confuse, though perhaps some of the small interesting notes were missed. Namely references to visiting graves (sometimes unattended spirits wander), time elapsing, and the significance of Harada living on floor number seven (a number at times associable with the word for death); just small things that really emphasise the sense of in-betweeness, liminality, of the story.
When I finished reading this time, I felt a very strong sense of peace and comfort. Also a niggling urge to go and visit my grandfather’s grave, just in case.
My Friend Amy who was sold on the book by a review in Dutch
kimbofo at Reading Matters seems to have found the book far sadder than I did, but wrote a great review
Bookie Mee however seems to have seen no transitions in Harada’s character, and thinks the book wasn’t what it could have been; it’s a good review to balance out the excited gushing here.