Strangers by Taichi Yamada [book review]

Strangers-YamadaStrangers is an odd little book and isn’t my usual fare because it involves ghosts. Fortunately there was more to it than the spectral element.

Hideo Harada is a middle-aged television scriptwriter who has recently been divorced. The separation was costly and he can’t afford to buy a decent apartment so he sets up home in his office in a high-rise apartment block overlooking Tokyo’s busy Route 8. At night when all the office workers leave, silence descends on the building. He thinks he is the only person in the place but one evening looking up at his building from the outside, he sees one other lit window. A few days later Kei, an attractive woman fifteen years his junior shows up at his apartment with a bottle of champagne in hand. 

On the night of his birthday, hit by a wave of nostalgia, he visits the entertainment district of Asakusa where he grew up. His parents died many years ago, killed in a road accident when he was 12 and they were in their mid thirties. In the old and now run-down streets he goes to the theatre where he sees a mediocre comedian. In the audience he is astonished to see a man who looks exactly like his long-dead sushi chef father. Invited for drinks at the man’s home, Harada is even more astounded to find that the wife looks exactly like his dead mother.  They’re the same age as his parents were when they died.  

How can that be possible he wonders?  There is only one possible explanation he concludes – they are an hallucination caused by his solitude and grief.   He thought he’d buried his grief for his parents but seeing them makes him realise that “Somewhere deep inside of me I had been yearning desperately for the warm embrace of parental love.

It’s that yearning that compels him to make return visits. Every time he does so, he feels bathed in the warmth of their welcome and their easy acceptance of him. Over the course of a few visits he relaxes enough to begin calling them Mom and Dad, finding a deep pleasure in their company and the opportunity to re-live happy childhood experiences as well as make up for lost time. 

Kei isn’t convinced his trips to Asakusa are good for his health. She sees Heido changing day-by-day, becoming hollow-eyed, aged and emaciated. She’s even more worried because Heido himself cannot see these changes – when he looks at himself in the mirror he looks as healthy as ever.  Can Kei save him from the ghosts of his past? Or is his desire to make up for the lost years of his relationship with his parents too strong to resist?

related in a pared-down prose style that matches well with Harada’s spartan life. He’s doesn’t seem to have any friends, he has lost touch with his only son and has no interest other than working on the script for a new series. Understandable therefore that he feels the pull towards this other surreal world.

It’s an engaging story that has a satisfying twist at the end. The supernatural elements don’t stand up to much scrutiny but I was more taken by the way Yamada deals with the psychological aspects. He deftly portrays the conflict Hideo experiences for example.

He is elated when he meets his ‘parents’ and is eager to be well regarded in their eyes. He desperately wants them to be proud of the man he has become so he takes them treats of cookies and fresh melon and orders in special delicacies for their meals together to show he can afford to do so.  But he is also afraid that his girlfriend might be right: his dead parents are sucking the life out of him.

No matter how free of malice and mischief my parents’ intentions might be, there could be no denying that they had long since passed into the world of the dead. The return of the dead fundamentally undermines the order of the living and I wholeheartedly shared Kei’s conviction that contact with such beings was something to be avoided. Yet when it concerned my own mother and father, I could not bring myself to think of them as an evil to be fought.

Unfortunately Yamada hasn’t been well served by the translation. Some of the dialogue between Harada and his parents struck me as incongruous. Would a man who lived in the 1940s really use the greeting “Yo” for example or tell his son “Put ‘er there” when he wants to shake hands?  His interactions with his son – it’s all “Whadja expect?” and “Okey-dokey” – struck too many false notes for me. I know the intent was to show how relaxed the man is with his son but Japanese idioms would have worked far bettr than these American English expressions. If you can ignore that then the book works fairly well as a story of uncanny events that is laden with atmosphere and a psychological portrait of a man who is emotionally starved.

Footnotes

About the Book: Strangers by Taichi Yamada was first published in Japanese as Ijin-tachi to no Natsu in 1987.  It won the Yamamoto Shūgorō Prize, an award made each year to new work of fiction considered to exemplify the art of storytelling,. The novel was translated into English in 2003. My 2006 edition, translated by Wayne P Lammers, is from Faber.

About the Author: Taichi Yamada is the pen name of Taichi Ishizaka, a film and television drama scriptwriter. Strangers was his first novel. He has since written two more that are available in English:  In Search of a Distant Voice,  and I Haven’t Dreamed of Flying for a While. 

Why I read this book: I can’t remember why I bought this book or even when. It’s a second hand copy but from where I have no idea. I read it as part of Japan lit challenge hosted on the Dolce Bellezza blog.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on September 22, 2017, in Book Reviews, Japanese authors and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. Yo would be anachronistic in a US novel set in the 1940s, so feels distinctly off here. Equivalent period slang I can see, though they are very different cultures, modern slang just utterly jars.

    It is an interestng issue, translating slang. There’s a review of Berlin Alexanderplatz at mine and that uses US slang in place of the German underworld slang of the original, but it’s period slang so I thought it worked (and besides, nothing quite like put ‘er there which or Okey-Dokey which is not only slangy but also folksy which doesn’t travel so well).

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    • I hadn’t thought about that Max but indeed Yo would be odd even in an American book. Slang presents the same issues that historical fiction writers must face – if you don’t find a natural way to reflect the patterns of speech of the period for your book it just sounds completely off.

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  2. Like Kim, I loved it so much that I didn’t notice the dodgy translation. It was one of my favourites a few years back and I still love to think of it. I’ve read another one later, which was still good but not as good.

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  3. I’m not sure I would have picked this book up based on the description, and the translation does sound troublesome. Usually, I can’t tell because I’m not fluent in other languages, but the examples you have are definitely American slang.

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    • I do wish I could remember why I bought this book, it’s bothering me because if it was a blogger’s recommendation then I could ask what it was that appealed to them and if they too were unhappy re the translation

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      • You may have picked it up because of me – I read (and reviewed it) in 2015, and I think you were having some “I need a wider range of Far East/Japanese writers” angst. Re-reading my review, I did pick up on the translation of the language, and that some was a little anachronistic, but I wasnt explicit.

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        • You could well be right Nordie – I know I was asking for recommendations at some point. This year, to avoid those memory lapses, I have started using the notes function on Goodreads so every time I add a book to my wishlist I also add a note about who recommended it or where I saw it mentioned

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  4. I absolutely loved this book when I read it quite a few years back now. I don’t recall the dodgy translation bits you refer to, so perhaps I was swept up by the story that I didn’t really notice them. I’m not a fan of supernatural fiction or magic realism or anything like that, but this book worked for me in a way I can’t quite put my finger on. It just had a lovely hypnotic feel to the prose style and it’s a book I still think about all these years later…

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  5. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out the book, Strangers by Taichi Yamada, as featured on the Booker Talk blog.

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  6. Thanks, I may then have to pass on this one. I still want to try his: I Haven’t Dreamed of Flying for a While

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  7. I responded to this very strongly back in 2015 when I read this, and I suspect that had a lot to do with the fact I was still coming to terms with the recent death of my father – so the parts where he re-encountered his parents were particularly poignant. I remember thinking the language was a little odd, but the story swept me along so it didn’t get in the way. An odd and very memorable book.

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  8. Sounds like an interesting read, although the translation does indeed sound odd, unless it was intended in some way. I find Japanese literature often reads “flat” and seemingly simple, in general. Not sure about the ghosts myself but will pick this up if I come across it.

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  9. I have read this book so many years ago I can hardly recall the details with great accuracy. But, I do recall how much I enjoyed it, and how caught up I was in the mood he created. I loved the “connecting with one’s parents” idea, even if it was only through ghosts. I should reread it this October, for the ghost aspect. I liked this line especially from your post: …I was more taken by the way Yamada deals with the psychological aspects.” Yes, me, too.

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    • The connecting with the parents desire is something that so many of us could relate to especially as we see our parents getting older and we want to hold on to those memories from the past

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  10. Enjoyed your review and am half tempted by the book but the other half of me is put off by the ominous mix of ghosts and dodgy translation. Your comment about the dialogue translation in particular chimes with me as recently read both Nakano Thrift Shop and Six Four – I enjoyed both but the dialogue felt odd at times in both – wasn’t sure if it was just differences between Japanese and UK speech patterns or if it was because in translating to English the focus was on a US audience rather more than UK.

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    • well they are ghosts in the sense they are not real but they are also not the ghosts that fade in and out of walls or carry their heads in their hands.Rather more sophisticated an approach than that fortunately

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  11. I think you got a lot more out of this book than I did – well done for persevering with it. Unfortunately, it was a rare DNF for me – quite surprising in some ways as I usually enjoy Japanese literature. Based on your comments, I’m wondering if the translation was part of the problem…

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  12. I admire you for getting through it. A poor translation is usually the kiss of death for me. Are we meant to take the idea of ghosts seriously or is it meant to be an allegory of what happens when a person becomes fixated with an idea and lets it eat away at them? I don’t know what the Japanese attitude towards ghosts is.

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    • Ghosts do feature a lot in Japanese culture. They take particular care to commemorate the spirits of departed family members and friends and also often seek the help of Buddhist priests to help remove unfriendly spirits. So in this book we are meant to take them seriously

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  13. Oh, dear – that translation sounds excruciating. I find anachronisms more irritating as I grow older. Hardly surprising, I suppose.

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