One of the many curses of coming from a country where English is not the dominant language is that your literature very rarely makes it outside your own country. I suspect many people could not name 5 contemporary Japanese authors off the top of their heads if they tried. Except maybe Haruki Murakami. Which is why I was not overly surprised that this book was written in 1986, even though it came out in English in 2006. So, was it worth the twenty year wait?
Tsuneo is a young man working for the Japanese Immigration Department, catching illegal immigrants living in Japan, and ensuring their safe return to their country of origin. It is during one of these raids, however, that his life takes a turn for the unusual, when he suffers a health attack (of the sexual kind), and comes into contact with a strange voice. He immediately suspects it is a voice from his past in America, and must uncover who it is to keep himself from going insane.
Even though this is a novel, it very much feels like a short story. I can’t quite describe it – perhaps it is Yamada’s style – but it employs many short story devices and is very easy to read in only a few sittings. I think some of the plot points and the such also feel very short story-ish. I don’t know. Some of the flashbacks to Tsuneo’s life in America are quite intense little pieces, especially the big reveal.
For a long time, I have been very reluctant to read anything in translation (book snob, I know…) , and as I read the first page of this, I remembered why. On the plus side, however, once you get past the ridiculously clunky first page, the rest of the translation is fine. Though not having read the original, I can’t comment too much, but the style is sparse and spare, as with many other modern Japanese authors, and I assume Michael Emmerich has been quite faithful. The one thing that is quite unique about Yamada’s writing is the constant switching between first and third person. In the same paragraph. It doesn’t grate, but instead of having a “thought Tsuneo”, he simply writes in the first person. Not bad, just a little different.
There’s not really a whole load to say about In Search of a Distant Voice, really. There’s no giant moral message to be had, no big life lesson to be learned, but it is a good read. This little story is worth the twenty year wait – an especially interesting entry into the ever growing magical realism genre, considering it doesn’t come from South America.