3 April 2008

Fear of flying

I Haven’t Dreamed of Flying for a While
by Taichi Yamada, translated by David James Karashima (Faber)

Variations on a supernatural theme: such are the novels of Taichi Yamada’s so far translated into English. A man’s dead parents come back to life; or a woman and a man somehow find themselves telepathically connected across nocturnal Tokyo. The stories are not so much sensational accounts of spirit-world incursions into everyday life as intimations that the ghostly or otherwise inexplicable is already there, if you’re in the right state to notice.

The people in the right state to notice are middle-aged men with troubled or defunct marriages. And so, in this newest translation, we meet a 48-year-old man, Taura, with a distant wife and a son he doesn’t really know, and whose middle-management career is in suspended animation. Recounting his story directly to the reader as though in person, Taura tells of getting laid up in hospital with a broken leg, and sharing a room for one night with a woman. They cannot see each other owing to a screen between their beds, but they get talking. One thing leads to another, and they have aural sex. The next morning, a nurse moves the screen, and Taura sees that the woman is old, wizened and grey.

After this memorable set-up, described with painstaking flatness, the reader is hardly prepared for what follows. The woman, Mutsuko, tracks Taura down, but now she is physically younger, by decades. For several weeks, she recounts, “I squirmed around with my mouth open”, alone in an apartment, and when it was over she was rejuvenated. They begin an affair, but a sense of dread creeps in. Mutsuko endures another agonizing change and becomes younger still. When will the cycle end? Will it end at all?

In Yamada’s novel Strangers, the narrator himself grows older, perhaps because of some vampiric spirits. That is a kind of mirror-image of the current story, whose disarmingly bold conceit is elaborated with a minute attention to the details of weather, or views from anonymous rooms, or a single autumn leaf on a table, that comes to seem almost desperate. “I was watching,” Tauro says in an awful inversion of cliché, “the futility of a person against the onslaught of youth.” The few scenes in which Taura returns to his family home are miraculously terse, conjuring bleak emotional vistas through single lines of uninflected speech, perhaps a gift from Yamada’s other life as a screenwriter. In comparison, unfortunately, the long conversations between Taura and Mutsuko are rather twee and sing-song. Even so, Yamada orchestrates such a perfect ending that the entire novel comes to seem like the striking of a gong. The resonance is the thing.

Does the order in which you read a writer’s books matter? As often happens in translation, Anglophone readers are getting Yamada’s oeuvre somewhat backwards. This novel was written before the first two to be published in English (Strangers, 2005; and In Search of a Distant Voice, 2006). If someone who liked those books assumes that I Haven’t Dreamed of Flying For a While is a follow-up to them, it might seem faintly disappointing: a little less rich in texture, comic detail, and subtlety of mood. The reality is that the novels previously translated represent a refinement and deepening of Yamada’s deceptively simple-looking, infectiously moody artistry. Once you have the order right in your head, this is heartening: let’s hope the translators will work forward again.