Floating Clouds (1951) – HAYASHI Fumiko

原文名: 浮曇
筆者: 林 芙美子
発行年: 昭和26 (1951年)

It’s hard to overestimate just how much of an impact the war—and perhaps more importantly, the defeat—had on Japan, and its national psyche. Obviously Japan had a huge impact on, well, most of Asia, really, but the defeat really sent Japan questioning. And in the past 60 years, some of the best art to come out of Japan has dealt with the way in which the war has shaped and created modern Japan. Floating Clouds is one such piece.

No more obvious in Floating Clouds is this than in the character of Kano, all full of verve and boisterous self-righteousness in Dalat, reduced to a consumptive wreck on his return to Japan. The defeat has meant he has literally fallen ill.

In other places, too, though the effects are not quite so stark, they are there. For Fumiko and Tomioka, their attempts to reassimilate into the lives they led before the war are almost comically futile. For Tomioka, though, this manifests itself in an inability to be faithful to his wife, and then, an inability to be faithful to the women with whom he is conducting affairs. Seriously, he sleeps with at least four women in the course of the novel, all the while purporting to be married to a poor woman who lives hundreds of miles away. He’s a terrible person.

Fumiko, too, must learn to live in a world where her skills are no longer required. Haunted by the uncle who sexually abused her as a child, she longs for her time in Dalat, where she and Tomioka began their relationship. There, free of the burden of ‘proper’ society, they were able to be together with no particular issue. Now, though, with Tomioka trying to put up a front with his wife, she finds herself listless and directionless, resorting to selling stolen goods from her family home to get by.

It is apt, then, that, in the end, the two of them escape to Yakushima, an island so far removed from Tokyo (that is, the symbol of contemporary Japan) that it is almost not actually in Japan (indeed, in 1951, it was the end of the line). They must remove themselves from the trappings of Japanese society in order to try and rebuild a new life, but even then, it is too late. Fumiko has fallen ill, and the uneasy feeling of death that has been following her might finally catch up.

As the two main characters find themselves isolated and disoriented in this brave new world, so too does the reader. Hayashi’s chapters are short and sharp—most are only three or four pages. And yet, the chapters do not represent discrece scenes in the novel—some time jumps take place in the middle of chapters, and many are barely signposted at all. Though told in a linear fashion, these jumps make it hard to get a grip on the characters, leaving you, as they are, trying to find an identity to cling to.

From all of this, it might sound like Floating Clouds is a bleak novel. That would be an apt description. It is almost suffocatingly so. At no stage does the overwhelming sense of defeat and resignation let up. From the rundown shacks and inns in which Tomioka and Fumiko rendezvous, to the depressingly clockwork-like nature of their relationship—she comes to him, he tries to reject her, they sleep together, then don’t see each other for some time—Hayashi does not portray post-war Japan as a place of hope and glory. Tomioka and Fumiko’s struggle to reassert themselves in this world is symptomatic of a country on its knees, a society that no longer knows where it is going. Floating Clouds is a novel that gets inside you.

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Plainsong (1999) – Kent HARUF

Death is a funny thing. I started writing this review a few weeks ago, and at that time, Kent Haruf was still alive. As I write this now, though, the great man has passed away, leaving behind five (soon to be six) novels. To celebrate his life and work, I’m going to spend the next three weeks talking about the most well-known of his Holt novels: Plainsong, Eventide and Benediction.

Haruf shot to fame (well, as much as he ever would) with this novel, his third. Set in Holt, the fictional town where all his novels are set, it tells of the coming together of the McPheron brothers, renowned bachelors living together on their farm just out of the town borders, and Victoria Roubideaux, a teenager who finds herself pregnant, and without a home. Plainsong is simply the story of how they learn to live together.

Much like his characters, Kent Haruf is not interested in romantic evocations of the landscape in which he finds himself. His language is short, plain, but laser-sharp. There are no wasted words in any sentence, and yet the town of Holt is brought vivdly to life; not through its landscape, but through an entirely believable cast of characters is brought to life. In fact, it is not until the closing paragraphs that Haruf allows himself a moment of release, leaving us with a lingering image of the setting.

Perhaps this is on purpose—there’s a timelessness to the novel that makes it hard to pin down exactly when it’s set. Though it was published in 1999, there’s no suggestion of any kind of twentieth-century convenience available to these characters: it could as easily be set in the 1950s as the 1990s.

At the centre of this novel is a three-person relationship: Victoria, Harold and Raymond. Brought together almost by happenstance, these three people who have learned to live a silent life suddenly find themselves in a situation where they must communicate with others. For Harold and Raymond, this breaks down decades of barriers between not only themselves and the rest of the world, but between the two brothers themselves. Despite having lived together all their lives, you get the feeling they’re not big on sharing. So to find themselves suddenly having to look after a pregnant teenager is something of a shock.

Victoria, too, must learn to place trust in others. Her mother is no use, having kicked her out once she discovered the baby, and she refuses to tell anyone the identity of the baby’s father, figuring it to be easier simply not to open that conversation. And yet, in a moment of weakness, she does run away with the boy in question, perhaps to try to make the perfect life she was never afforded by having a single mother. It’s perfectly understandable, but at the same, as you see it happening, you just want to reach in and tell her what a bad idea it is.

Though his characters make mistakes, they do not seem to suffer the ultimate character flaw—being blissfully ignorant of what’s going on around them. So many characters seem to, for narrative reasons, ignore the bleeding obvious, even though any regular person would see it. Haruf is so much of a realist he won’t even bend to these writer’s rules simply for the sake of drama. His characters might be flawed, and do dumb things, but they seem to be aware of them, and want to make themselves better people. It’s something we all strive to do, even if it makes out lives less melodramatic.

Plainsong is not a novel about big ideas. It’s not got an Important Message it wants to tell you. It is the story of decent people doing decent things. And in a world like ours, perhaps that’s what we all need.

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By Night the Mountain Burns (2008) – Juan Tomás ÁVILA LAUREL

I’ve talked before about the good work And Other Stories do, so I won’t go into much background about this novel, other than I can’t imagine any other publisher in the English-speaking world taking a gamble on a novel from an Equatorial Guinean writer who spends a lot of his time running away from his own government. So it’s nice that I can read this from the comfort of my Sydney home.

A young boy growing up on an island off the coast of west Africa tells us the story of life on his Atlantic Ocean island. His meandering story takes us from his own family—he lives with his mothers, siblings and grandfather—right around the tiny island populated by a huge cast of characters. Though only a child, he sees the darkness in the island lifestyle, and shows us that a beautiful beach and ocean are not enough to sustain life.

I don’t need to add to the praise for Jethro Soutar, intrepid translator of this novel (you can see why here), but I will anyway. Throughout By Night, the voice of the narrator never wavers. Not once does it slip. And it’s a unique voice—both childish and reflective, laser-sharp in its recollection of detail while at the same time chasing tangents to their logical end. These contradictions are inextricably bound up in the story, and while it took Ávila Laurel to write it in Spanish, it took Soutar to give chumps like me the chance to read it.

The best science fiction writers are the ones who can conjure up a world so far removed from our own while still ensuring it is believable. And as an Australian reader, life on a remote island of the coast of west Africa is perhaps as far removed as it is possible to get while remaining on Earth. The stories feel at once foreign and familiar. Foreign, because this is a culture the world has never experience before. But as with all great authors, Ávila Laurel makes these cultural unfamiliarities familiar by reminding us that the results of these events are human in their nature. Intensely human situations are vividly brought to life: a child horrified by the uncovering of a dark family secret; a boy holding on to a tree branch for dear life, terrified he will fall; a woman desperately clinging to a lie to ensure her child is treated as it should be.

What ties all these disparate stories together, though, is the growing sense of unease that accompanies each one. While most start out fairly innocently, it rapidly becomes clear that, beneath the surface, the lives of these people are far from ideal. In particular, the women in these stories seem to always come off second-best: perhaps the most harrowing, and yet strangely affecting, story is the final one. A woman who had a child with a visiting white trader suddenly finds her son ill. To save him, she asks a man with a canoe to take her to the main village, an arduous journey that requires a great deal of effort on his part. But he agrees, and they set out. This is harrowing enough in itself, but Avila Laurel reminds us that nothing is ever that simple, and the twist is both shocking and perfectly understandable.

This is not a novel about one person, or even about one story. By Night the Mountain Burns is an introduction to another place, a community and culture where men fish during the day, where women work the fields, where the outside influence of white people and colonialism remains fragile. By Night the Mountain Burns is a novel to be read not just by people looking to tick a country off their list, but anyone interested in what happens to people and communities under immense pressure just to survive.

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The Lives of Others (2014) – Neel MUKHERJEE

Only three Indian novels have won the Booker, and two of them (which won in the last decade), are small-scale family dramas. While Mukherjee is continuing the trend of Indian family dramas appearing in Booker lists, this is not a small novel. Anyone who reads this blog with any regularity may have noticed that I don’t read a lot of big books. I must confess, this is because I tend to find them offputting. Committing yourself to anything over 500 pages requires an act of great faith in an author, and I can’t think of many that I trust that implicitly. However, in an attempt to get over this, I pulled Neel Mukherjee’s Booker-shortlisted The Lives of Others off the shelf.

Although I was aware of the Naxalites before reading this, I certainly wasn’t aware of the horrific acts of violence they undertook the name of progress and ideology. What is perhaps even more galling is the fact that so many of them—Supratik included—are not part of the poor, disenfranchised they are supposed to be lifting out of poverty. They are simply spoiled middle-class boys who think going around to villages causing trouble will be a laugh. Like all bull-headed twenty-somethings obsessed with ideology over the real world, they think what they are doing is right and just, even though they are, in fact, upsetting delicately balanced relationships (that, granted, should be upset), an action that eventually devolves into murder. These are not heroes to be worshipped—they are garden-variety terrorists that should be stopped.

And yet, the punishment that is eventually meted out to Supratik is brutal. The physical and emotional torture he faces at the hands of the police after his arrest is cruelty of the highest order, and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone. It’s a testament to Mukherjee that he made me sympathise with Supartik near the end.

Parallel to this (so parallel, in fact, it often seems like it is taking place in a parallel universe) is the rather charming story of the Ghoshes—a middle-class family on the verge of falling apart. As their accumulated wealth slowly trickles from their hands, cracks in the already tense familial relationships begin to appear. Some of these scenes are the best in the novel—Mukherjee has a talent for finding the worst in people, and still ensuring that we care about them. Each time we return to family life, we follow a different member of the family, struggling to find their own place in a family creaking with history and expectation. Though their actions may adversely affect others, when we are with them, we are with them all the way.

Despite some structural issues, as well as slightly confusing/slow start, The Lives of Others has a lot to offer. The two competing storylines are both important, and while it might have made more sense to separate them out, allowing them to run simultaneously allows Mukherjee to remind us that, while huge political shifts are happening, human nature tends towards ignoring it unless it has a direct influence on you. Recommended.

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The Bone Clocks (2014) – David MITCHELL

I should note, before I start, that I can in no way be a partial judge of David Mitchell’s work. If ever I had a favourite author, this guy would be it. So apologies if this sounds a bit fanboy-ish.

David Mitchell’s new novel, The Bone Clocks, is another genre-bending, time-travelling, sprawling epic from the author of Cloud Atlas. When Holly Sykes runs away from home as a 16 year old, she cannot begin to imagine her life as an adult—a life that will see her travel the world, meet interesting people, and be drawn into a supernatural war thousands of years old.

Mitchell has few peers when it comes to the way in which he mixes and remixes genre and style to create an entirely new entity. So the best comparisons to draw are with his other work. I have seen several reviewers point to Cloud Atlas for comparison, but other than the fact that The Bone Clocks is composed of six interlocking novellas, there isn’t a lot going for that comparison. For while the beauty of Cloud Atlas is that those six novellas are, for the most part, unrelated, The Bone Clocks is a much tighter, much more controlled narrative. Each of the six stories here relates directly to Holly Sykes, whether through her family or through people she comes into contact with as she lives her (comparatively) normal life.

The other huge departure, too, is that The Bone Clocks is, if you’ll forgive the expression, balls-out fantasy. There’s none of the pussy-footing around the idea of reincarnation that we saw in Cloud Atlas, or even in Thousand Autumns—the concepts of Horologists, Atemporal, of people who can read minds, of the Dusk Chapel of the Blind Cather are right out of a Neil Gaiman or China Mieville novel. And yet it all seems to work, and never feels forced or too much like a literary trying desperately to be cool: it’s not just fancy decoration.

So though the fantasy is omnipresent in the pages of the novel, these complexities and fireworks would be nothing if there was no humanity, no soul (if you’ll forgive my taking of Mitchell’s own parlance) at the centre of it. Once you are drawn into the real lives of the five protagonists, it is easy to forget that any other-worldly creatures exist in this novel ever existed—Hugo, Ed and Crispin are all fascinating portraits of ordinary people learning to live in a world that doesn’t quite make sense to them. Each finds themselves on the outer, each tries to get closer to Holly in order to ground themselves in a world they see slipping out of their grasp at an alarming rate. Perhaps, then, this is a novel of the men in Holly’s lives?

Mitchell has always been deeply concerned with the soul, with exploring the essence of what it means to be human. His work finds this soul, this humanity, in people from all over the world and from all over time. He doesn’t seem to see any particularly inherent difference between, say, a Noongar elder from the dawns of time and a Japanese prostitute working in 1600s Dejima. That kind of beautifully humanist naivety is what has always drawn me to his work, and The Bone Clocks is no exception.

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Sworn Virgin (2007) – Elvira DONES

To say that we have a woman problem is unfair, but it something that we should all keep in mind, particularly with the recent conclusion of Women in Translation month: women seem to be disproportionately under-represented when we talk about translated fiction. I’m not totally sure why, but while And Other Stories can be commended for many things when it comes to translated fiction, to this point (four years in), they have only published one lady writer in translation. Odd.

Fortunately, the one novel they have published in this category is a good one.

It’s 2001, and Hana Doda has arrived in America to live with her cousin Lila. But Hana isn’t just dealing with entering a new culture—for the past 14 years, she has lived as Mark, a man in the Albanian mountains. Here in America, though, she will reclaim her former life as Hana, a young woman with hopes and dreams that have been suppressed for more than a decade.

Rather sensibly, Dones does not linger too long on either the way in which Hana becomes Mark, nor even the life Mark leads. She is not concerned with the titillation of a cross-dressing character—she is concerned with the emotions and thoughts of a real person who has made an immense sacrifice to ensure her own safety and survival.

What emerges from this novel is not just the truistic fact that gender is a social construct, but that navigating between the two is supremely difficult. Mark was never anything more than a construction Hana used to get out of a tricky situation, but he was a mask that she wore for 15 years, and one that she became used to. I’m not sure she was ever comfortable behind the mask (very few people ever are; and the only time we are given a glimpse into this life, the situation does not end well), but she learned what the mask entailed.

When Hana comes to America to make a new life for herself, ready to free herself from the cocoon of male identity she has spun, she finds herself stepping into a whole new world. Not America—Hana is too smart to let a small thing like culture shock get in the way, and she takes to the American daily routine like a duck to water—but to the world of female. Her guide, though, does not seem to realise just how big a transition this really is. For Lila, being a woman means conforming to a certain list of rules, regulating what must be done, what must be worn, and what actions must be taken. For Lila, there are two teams: Team Man and Team Woman, and never the twain shall meet.

It would be tempting, I imagine, for an author like Elvira Dones to ride on the coattails of her inherent otherness (an Albanian writing in Italian), but to her credit, she does not. She takes a tiny piece of Albanian culture—the idea of the burrnesha, or sworn virgin—and weaves around it the inherently human tale of the universal search for identity. If one were the kind of person to exaggerate wildly from a sample size of one, one might say: if this is what women in translation can offer, let’s get moving to find the rest of them.


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The Other Shore (2014) – Hoa PHAM

Seizure are a publishing company based in Western Sydney—think of them as the cooler, younger sister of Giramondo. Over the past few years they have run a competition called Viva La Novella, designed to promote writers using this shorter format. This year, there were four winners, each published in print form. Hoa Pham, a former SMH Young Novelist of the Year, was one of this year’s winners.

When Kim Nguyen falls out of a boat and nearly drowns, she suddenly finds herself with the ability to speak to the dead. News of her gift, though, quickly finds its way to the all-knowing government, who want her to use it to help them. But Kim is uncomfortable with her new work, and with the arrival of a mysterious young man from America, she finds her loyalties divided.

Here’s a fun fact: the name Nguyen is the 13th most common surname in Australia. In Sydney, it’s the third most common. Australia has a strong history of immigration from Vietnam—South Australia’s Governor-elect is Hieu Van Le, a man who came to Australia in 1977 as a refugee. And yet, there is a dearth of Vietnamese-Australian voices in the literature world. Anh Do’s autobiography, The Happiest Refugee, was popular, but outside that, there are no household names. It’s refreshing, then, to read a Vietnamese-Australian voice in print.

Kim’s gift awakens her not only to the spiritual world, but to the realities of history that have been hidden from her by an authoritarian government trying to keep a lid on the past. Born and raised in Hà Nội, the stronghold of the communist government, Kim has only been told one side of the story. As she visits past battlefields, however, to help spirits reconnect with their living descendants, she finds herself talking to Americans and Southern Vietnamese people who died during the war.

The use of speculative fiction to shine a light on real-world issues is not exactly revolutionary—in fact, it is the genre’s very raison d’etre—but by placing it in this context, Pham reminds us that the effects of war live long into the future. The Vietnam War holds a particularly complex place in Western memory, and it is pleasing to see that Pham draws out the complexities of the American War from the other side. The battle may be over, but the reverberations of one death travel along family lines, forcing their way into everyday life.

More important, though, is the question it raises about the relationship between children, education and history. Kim is suddenly awakened to the reality of history—that war is complex, and that there are not usually any clear winners. Pham dares to ask the question: what happens to a young girl on the brink of adulthood when she discovers that her life is built on a lie? And here, we don’t mean a small lie, we mean a big, sociocultural lie. Literally her entire life is built on the idea that the North won, and that the Americans and the South were inherently bad people. But this is clearly not the case. Kim’s struggle to reconcile this truth with her life before her gift is deftly explored by Pham, particularly in the second half.

If Viva La Novella is a prize dedicated to finding Australian fiction that wouldn’t be published by a mainstream publisher, then it’s hit the nail on the head with The Other Shore. A genre-bending short work, it highlights Hoa Pham’s abilities to combine the everyday with the supernatural in a way that never feels forced; instead forcing her readers to reconsider their own ideas about war and memory.

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Nowhere People (2011) – Paulo SCOTT

The And Other Stories machine often seems unstoppable. Like Marvel Studios, they have reached a point where their brand seems to almost guarantees success. It would be easy, then, for them to rest on their laurels and start pumping stuff out. Fortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case.

On a highway in Brazil, a chance encounter will change the lives of a family forever. Feelign guilty about his lack of empathy, Paulo stops at the roadside to help a young Guarani girl, Maína. Quite by accident, he falls in love with her, and their brief but passionate relationship results in a baby. But Donato is soon separated from his parents, and moves to the city, where he is brought up by adoptive parents that can do nothing but their best.

I am, by no means, an expert on Brazilian literature (I am, in fact, struggling to name another Brazilian author I’ve read), but it seems hard not to read Nowhere People as a state-of-the-nation novel. In what is a comparatively slim volume, Scott tackles the big three—race, class and gender—in contemporary, and examines the ways in which the three issues collide.

The most important of those three, though, is race. Scott seems deeply concerned with the indigenous population of Brazil, and in particular, the ways in which the indigenous and non-indigenous populations interact. As with all postcolonial literature concerned with exploring identity, Scott’s main character, Donato, is a hybrid figure—neither completely indigenous, though seemingly unable to commit to a life in mainstream Brazilian life. His interrupted childhood has left him a confused young man, trying to understand his own place, as well as the history of his people.

Donato can only find a sense of relief in his performance art, which sees him stand outside buildings in downtown reclaim and reappropriate a traditional Guarani costume to silently protest the treatment of his people. It’s a stark contrast to his own thoughts as a child which, under the influence, of his white adopted father, saw him ashamed of his Indian heritage, believing the only way forward was assimilation.

This about-turn in values is perhaps symptomatic of a larger question facing the indigenous population in Brazil—and, indeed, all over the world. What is the best way forward for these marginalised groups? Do we ask them to integrate into the mainstream colonial culture, helping them understand our values and money? Do we leave them to their own devices (in Brazil, this has manifested itself in the Terras Indígenas)? And how do people who have been dragged from one side of this debate to the other reconcile their two halves?

Nowhere People is a novel that, the moment you put it down, demands to be reread. Its unfocused narrative shifts are disconcerting, leaving the unsuspecting reader alienated and confused. Once it settles down, however, it is a novel that has a lot to say about a country that is on the brink of becoming one of the world’s powerhouse economies. In an attempt to remind people of the cost of this great leap forward, Scott draws our attention to the nowhere people of Brazil—the disenfranchised and the dispossessed, forced to eke out a living on the side of a highway.

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Here Come the Dogs (2014) – Omar MUSA

I wrote the other week about the lack of diversity of voices in Australian literature, and singled out Giramondo Press for publishing The Tribe, a novel about Muslim Australians. I must eat my words here, and congratulate Penguin Australia for punting on Here Come the Dogs. Not only is this about non-white Australia, about a third of it is in verse.

Omar Musa is a celebrated slam poet and rapper, though his work has always tended more towards the literary and less towards mainstream hip hop. It is great, then, to see him turn to the novel—an art form perhaps intrinsically linked to the dead white man—and reappropriate it, tearing down some of the conventions we have come to expect, and instead force it to conform to his ideas.

Solomon, Aleks and Jimmy don’t fit in. A wake of ruined dreams lies behind them, and they now find themselves in their late twenties with little direction in life. Solomon once dreamt of being a basketball player. Aleks finds himself with a family that is less than perfect. And Jimmy doesn’t know who he is. Instead, they hang around the Town, arguing about hip hop and girls.

Some novels have titles that are natural, while others feel forced. There are others, still, that only make sense once you are in the thick of the action. For quite some time, the only dog in Here Come the Dogs is Mercury, a racing greyhound taken in by Solomon, who feels sorry for the animal. This is an animal that has been used and abused, simply for the entertainment of other people.

Though Here Come the Dogs is not explicitly set in Queanbeyan/Canberra, Musa’s background comes to the fore as he tries to explain what life is like in the Town and in the City. Anyone who has lived in Canberra or Queanbeyan, I suspect, will easily see these two cities in the novel: the City is where the public servants live in their bubble of hipster coffee, wide roads and public art, while the Town is the dirty cousin that everyone tries to ignore. Solomon, Aleks and Jimmy are the dogs of Australia, the ones that have been abandoned by everyone, left to fend for themselves once the shine wears off.

The Town is where Musa’s Australia lives: the Australia that is not all white, the Australia that is a little bit dangerous, the Australia that is forgotten by the political machine until it suits them. There are some very contemporary references here, including the recent moves against Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, and it is clear that there is no love lost for politicians like Damien Crawford, a rather terrible (though depressingly accurate) caricature of much of contemporary Australian political discourse. And while this is a novel deeply concerned with the local, if one were so inclined, much of this could be expanded to the national without much stress.

In between the hip hop and the basketball, Here Come the Dogs is probably the closest we’ve come to a state of the nation novel from a young Australian writer in a long time. Though not as obviously angry as early Christos Tsiolkas, Musa is also trying to force the marginalised into the mainstream—an admirable project that hopefully gains traction. Here Comes the Dogs is a muscular portrait of an Australia that cries out for wider recognition.

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Silence Once Begun (2014) – Jesse BALL

I think we all know that I’m a sucker for any book about Japan/set in Japan/written by Japan. And since early reviews for Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun were positive, I thought I’d check it out for myself.

Jesse Ball, an investigative journalist, has come to Japan to solve a mystery. He has heard a story, and he wants to solve it. In the 70s, a man named Oda Sotatsu turned himself into the police, confessing to a crime. What is interesting, though, is that he only did this because he lost a card game. And once he confessed, he remained silent until he was executed. As Ball trawls through the evidence presented to him 40 years later, he finds himself trapped in a web of deceit and lies.

Silence Once Begun is dedicated to K. Abe and S. Endo, and it’s easy to see why. Both Abe and Endo are major Japanese writers, dealing with themes of existential isolation in a post-war Japan, and though that’s not quite what’s going on here, you can delineate the through-line that led Ball to this place. Particularly in the first half, there is a vague sense of unease and oppression—even though the events of the crime took place almost thirty years earlier, none of the affected parties are willing to talk to Ball about it, and when they do, they all seem to contradict each other. Nowhere more has the spawn of the marriage of crime fiction and postmodernism—the unreliable narrator—been more present. And yet, when the key player in the events surrounding the Narito Disappearances himself is dead, perhaps that is all that can be done.

When I read The Cuckoo’s Calling earlier this year, I was struck by how formulaic the formal structure—Strike goes to each person, interviews them, takes notes, and thinks. Perhaps this is simply a result of the genre, but while Rowling seems constrained by this, Ball gets around it by actively drawing our attention to the (un)natural structure of his piece—though this is a novel, it is masquerading as a piece of true crime, so it would make sense for it to look like this.

There’s a weird tension in this novel that I am still trying to wrap my head around. So often in Silence Once Begun, the setting seems irrelevant to the story—despite the general Abe-esque tone of the novel, the fact that this is the story of an American journalist coming to find a story in Japan is rarely touched. Which is a shame, because the novel is set in Sakai, a dirty part of Osaka that is beautiful in its ugliness (I’m allowed to say that—I used to live there). This is particularly apt, since much of the action takes place in the 70s, a time when Japan was still moving fast towards becoming the modern behemoth it is today; and like all developing countries, it was leaving lots of people behind, a fact that opens up narrative possibilities like no other.

And yet, so much of the final act twist revolves around some very particular specificities of the Japanese legal system, including the fact that confessions carry an almost disproportionate weight in trials. It’s like Ball wants us, for long tracts, to ignore the fact that this is a white man telling a story of Asian people—until the very end. I’m struggling to think of another novel that ignores its unusual setting with such abandon for so long, only to make it important for the dénouement.

Silence Once Begun is a short, arresting read. Reading certain passages, you could easily believe this is a lost Abe novel, trying to come to terms with an increasingly isolated world in which we live, where each person’s lived experiences are seen to be as valid as every other’s.

(Unrelated to anything—the cover for this novel only reminds me that any novel about Japan is allowed to have no colours on its cover other than white, red and black.)

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