Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 183 pages; 2007. Translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich.
Four years ago I read Taichi Yamada’s Strangers, a truly haunting story that I still, occasionally, think about. So when I saw Yamada’s second novel, the intriguingly named In Search of A Distant Voice, in Waterstone’s the other day I just had to buy it.
It took 20 years for the book to be translated into English (it was first published in Japan in 1986) and earned high praise from the critics. I found it an enjoyable read, one that created more questions in my mind than it answered. It also left me wondering what it is about Japanese society that has so many of its writers penning books about loneliness, repression and alienation, because it seems as if every Japanese novel that I have read — which, to be fair, isn’t very many — shares these common themes.
An immigration officer on the run from his own past
In Search of A Distant Voice tells the story of Kasama Tsuneo, a 29-year-old immigration officer in Tokyo, who has a secret past. He’s on the verge of being betrothed to a woman five years his junior as part of an arranged marriage, and the rest of his life — dull but secure — seems mapped out for him.
But then one day, while out on a raid, something extraordinary happens to him.
While chasing a suspected illegal immigrant through a graveyard he is overcome by a wave of sexual desire that brings him to his knees, leaving him unable to continue the chase. He does not know what triggered “the tempest of overpowering sensuousness” but he has never experienced anything like it, not even with a real woman. And he then begins to question his sanity — perhaps he’s overworked or is keeping too many things suppressed?
Begins hearing voices
Later, in his apartment in a government dormitory, he hears a woman’s voice but he cannot see anyone. Is she the woman who gave him so much pleasure in the graveyard? Or is she a figment of his imagination? Is he going mad?
Troubled by the voice and desperate to bond with his soon-to-be fiancée Yoshie, whom he knows so little about, he makes a confession during dinner one evening:
“Lately—” he began.
“I’ve been hearing a voice.”
“It says good evening. There’s no one around, but I hear this voice saying good evening to me.”
“Here and there. Good evening.”
“Are you drunk?”
“Yeah, I get drunk suddenly. Before I know it I can’t even walk.”
“I was wondering what the hell you were talking about.”
Tsuneo laughed and let it drop. She wouldn’t believe him even if he really tried to tell her. And it wasn’t only Yoshie. No one would believe a story like this. He wanted to tell someone about it, but not many people would really be able to accept it. He wouldn’t be able to talk with Yoshie about this, even after they were married. He’d just have to let it sink into oblivion, along with the story of what had happened in Portland.
And therein lies the key to this strange but beguiling story. Tsuneo’s tortured past in Portland, Oregon, where he was once an illegal immigrant himself, comes back to haunt him.
Confesses all to the woman he cannot see
In a series of conversations with the “voice”, he tells her what happened in the USA eight years earlier, a sort of confession that deepens his guilt rather than absolves it. Ultimately it leaves Tsuneo more troubled than appeased and his life slowly begins to unravel…
In Search of A Distant Voice is part ghost story, part quest and it reads like a thriller. But there’s a meditative quality to the writing too, which switches back and forth seamlessly from third person to first person, allowing you an insight into Tsuneo’s inner-most thoughts.
I don’t think it is anywhere near as strong a narrative as Strangers, but it’s just as unsettling and deeply eerie. If you feel like a supernatural read rooted in reality do try it.