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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.

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