Author, Book review, Books in translation, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Japan, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Taichi Yamada

‘In Search of a Distant Voice’ by Taichi Yamada


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.”
“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.

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2007

Books-of-the-yearYes, it’s that time of year again, time to look back on 12 months’ worth of reading to see what stands out and to choose 10 titles as my favourite novels for 2007.

It’s been a weird year, not least because my professional life got ratcheted up a few gears in May and the pace has been fairly relentless ever since. This means my reading (and blogging) time has been seriously curtailed, but I’ve still managed to devour at least one book a week.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s my top 10 (in alphabetical order by book title):

Between Two Rivers by Nicholas Rinaldi (2005)
‘One of those rare novels that takes a simple premise — the lives of the residents in a tower block in downtown Manhattan — and turns it into something truly special, in prose that is, by turn, elegant and shocking, eerie and mesmerising.’

Digging to America by Anne Tyler (2007)
‘While there is no real storyline to speak of, Tyler is able to explore two different views of America — the insider’s and the outsider’s — with tenderness and insight.’

The Gathering by Anne Enright (2007)
‘Amid the dark, often depressing, subject matter there are chinks of light that make the novel surprisingly witty and, in a perverse kind of way, uplifting.’

I’m Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti (2003)
‘A delicious treat, one that transports the reader back to that time when the adult world was incomprehensible and the best thing about life was riding your bicycle throughout the long, hot school holidays that lay ahead every summer.’

The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers (2007)
‘A remarkable, utterly engrossing book that cannot fail to move any reader, no matter how hardened they might be to the myriad emotions associated with art, death, life, love and loss.’

The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver (2007)
‘A fascinating account of one woman’s personal growth as she learns that both men in her life are good people with character flaws and that no matter who you choose there will always be ups and downs.’

Saturday by Ian McEwan (2005)
‘A very cerebral book (quite clever when you consider that the lead character makes his living operating on people’s brains) until you come to the unexpected, and somewhat shocking climax, which takes the action up a gear or two.’

Strangers by Taichi Yamada (2005)
‘One of those beguiling tales told in simple, hypnotic prose.’

That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern (2003)
‘A beautiful, slow-moving book that mirrors the gentle rhythm of rural life and brims with a subdued love of nature.’

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa As Aswany (2007)
‘A powerful, thought-provoking and controversial read, but also an entertaining and enlightening one.’

What books did you fall in love with this year?

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Japan, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Taichi Yamada

‘Strangers’ by Taichi Yamada


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 208  pages; 2005. Translated from the Japanese by W.P. Lammers.

Sometimes you pick up a book and find yourself so lost in the story that whenever you put it down — if you can put it down — that you find yourself thinking about it, and counting the hours, minutes, until you can resume reading it again.

When I initially picked up Taichi Yamada’s Strangers, a slim volume with slightly too-large print, I had no idea what to expect from it. Little did I know the stranglehold it would have over me for the three days it took me to read. Every time I had to close the book, owing to my deep and abiding need for sleep during a hectic working week, I did so reluctantly. And every morning I’d wake up, a little knot of excitement in my tummy, knowing that this magical, haunting, little book was awaiting my eager eyes.

Paradoxically, as much as I could not wait to reach the final, chilling conclusion, I also did not want the story to end, and I admittedly dragged it out for at least a day longer than was truly necessary.

Strangers is one of those beguiling tales told in simple, hypnotic prose. The first person narrative by 48-year-old Harada, a depressed and slightly jaded TV scriptwriter living in Tokyo, is strangely addictive despite the sometimes clunky sentence structure and the not-quite-right dialogue littered with American slang (perhaps a fault of the translator rather than the author?)

The story opens with Harada admitting that life as a newly divorced man has left him a little cash-strapped. Unable to afford a nice home, he is now living in an apartment that was once his office. His aching loneliness is mirrored in the silence that surrounds him each night, the only resident in a seven-storey building on a busy traffic route.

This feeling of too much quiet first came over me on a night near the end of July as I sat working at my desk a little after eleven. A chill ran down my spine, and I felt as though I were suspended in the middle of a vast dark void, utterly alone. “It’s awfully quiet,” I murmured. I ignored the feeling as I continued to write. Had my divorce left me with unresolved anxieties of some kind, I wondered. Who in their right mind would think that a building overlooking a major traffic artery was too quiet?

This unsettled feeling gets worse when he discovers he has a neighbour living on the third floor, an attractive 33-year-old woman, whom he suspects is as lonely as he is. They have a nodding acquaintance but Harada lacks the courage to ask her over for a drink.

This creeping unease turns to shock when he finds out that his longtime collaborator, Mamiya, is going to marry his ex-wife. And just when you think things couldn’t get worse, or the narrator couldn’t possibly begin to feel any more confused or out-of-sorts, on a spontaneous visit to the suburb in which he grew up he runs into a man that looks exactly like his long-dead father.

He was looking back at me. My heart stopped. The man smiled and dipped his head in a little nod. My flesh went cold. Averting my eyes, I stared at the floor and tried  to quell my extreme agitation. Why would he be looking at me? Why would he smile and nod as if he knew me?

From here on in, the story becomes slightly surreal and totally mesmirising, as Harada resumes contact with the parents that left him orphaned at the age of 12. His mother and father seem not to have aged since their deaths and he grapples with the realisation that a “thirty-something couple could not possibly be the parents of a 48-year-old man”. Harada finds himself living in a kind of twilight world, unable to determine what is real and what is not…

At its most basic level Strangers is a ghost story, but the simple detached prose style belies a much deeper psychological anaylsis of modern life and how the relationships between men and women, parents and children shape our personalities and our lives. While the core of the story is eerie and edgy, this is not a horror story but a very human tale about grief and longing. I found it enormously sad and know the  mood — and memory — of this book will stay with me for a long, long time. If only every book I read was like this!