13 May 2006
In Search of a Distant Voice
by Taichi Yamada, translated by Michael Emmerich (Faber)
Taichi Yamada specialises in the eerieness of Tokyo buildings at unearthly hours of the morning. His previous novel, the humid mood piece Strangers, told a tale of the supernatural whose hero slept in his office block at night. In Search of a Distant Voice, originally published 20 years ago but only now translated from the Japanese, begins with its protagonist, Kasama Tsuneo, waking up in his office dormitory: he is an immigration “security officer”, and some Indians lacking visas need to be tracked down in a graveyard. Yamada piles on a sense of the foreboding by emphasising the greyness of the building, the “heavy clouds” in the sky, and a convocation of crows fluttering up from the roadside. Just eating garbage: they don’t mean anything “ominous”, Tsuneo tells himself. The reader is not convinced. If there are any Hello Kitty billboards around to lighten the mood, they are not mentioned.
The first thing we learn about the 29-year-old Tsuneo is that he had “wanted desperately to be ordinary” some years previously, when he lived for a while in Portland, Oregon. Subsequent references make it clear that something terrible happened in Portland: a dark secret, the hoped-for revelation of which immediately provides some epistemological suspense. Once a youth dodging US immigration officials, he has become one of their Japanese counterparts, a fact that gives him some doubts about whether he ought to be doing his job at all. Indeed, he resembles a younger version of the ordinary men who populate Haruki Murakami’s novels, emotionally sceptical of the world, and fond of a particular kind of music — Murakami’s heroes always listen to jazz, while Tsuneo enjoys Mozart and Beethoven, but can’t play them in the office for fear of what his colleagues might say.
Very soon, something odd happens. Facing down a cornered suspect in the graveyard, Tsuneo is hit by a “raging storm” of erotic pleasure and lets his quarry get away. Then he starts hearing a woman’s voice in his head. It seems that an unknown woman in Tokyo has accidentally established a telepathic connection with him. After a while they are talking casually of “calling” each other. Does this woman exist, or is she just a figment of Tsuneo’s imagination? And if she does exist, how might such a thing be possible?
The story might sound silly in précis, but Yamada handles it with an exquisite lightness of touch, focusing on utterly normal objects and surroundings, and establishing a compelling rapport between Tsuneo and the voice in his head. There are deft passages of social observation, as when Tsuneo, who is attempting to go through with an arranged marriage to a colleague, meets his fiancée’s parents at the engagement ceremony: the comedy is pitilessly exact, both in dialogue and the almost mime-like choreography of the characters’ movements. As befits the novel’s title, moreover, the narrator’s voice is an oddly slippery thing, frequently changing tenses and subjects, as though it is attempting to get inside the reader’s head in the same the way the mystery woman has got inside its hero’s.
Is the book, then, a parable of being true to oneself, or an allegory about the expiation of guilt, or a ghost story? It might be all of these things, but by the time we have learned Tsuneo’s secret and the truth about the mystery woman, the novel ends at the perfect moment of indeterminacy, hovering gracefully between possible readings. Those Tokyo birds taught the novelist something: Yamada’s carefully nuanced atmosphere of melancholy yearning is as light as a crow’s feather.