My January in Japan blogging event only went for three years, but the habit of devoting the first month of the year to Japanese literature has continued, with most years seeing me kick back with some of my favourite writers. While last January had a focus on one author, this time around I’ll be spreading the net a little wider: there’ll be some new writers and old classics; I’ll look at novels, stories and even a bit of poetry. I haven’t finalised all my plans yet, so there might also be a surprise or two in store. Let’s see where we’re starting off today 🙂
Toshiki Okada’s The End of the Moment We Had (translated by Sam Malissa, review copy courtesy of Pushkin Press) brings together two longish stories (or short novellas) connected by depictions of contemporary life for young(ish) people. Both feature the voices of the less well-off, granting the reader access to the characters’ thoughts, which, if not quite stream-of-consciousness, certainly rattle along carrying equal amounts of nonsense and insight in their flow.
The title story begins with a group of young men winding their drunken way towards an underground bar, where an unusual performance is about to take place. It’s only after this performance, and a couple of flashbacks, that the core of the story is reached, with one of the men ending up in a love hotel with a woman who catches his eye – and staying there for four nights…
Yes, drunkenness and casual sex are involved, but that’s not what ‘The End of the Moment We Had’ is really about. The story is set against the backdrop of the Second Gulf War, and there’s a sense that the young couple are seeking something more than a nice way to finish off a drunken evening:
At some point, a feeling settled on both of us that we were cutting the cord of time. You know, time which is always pushing us forwards, pushing us forwards, and even if we want it to slow down a little it never listens, so we give up hope of it ever letting up, but for now, just for now, time felt like it’d been unplugged and we had been given a reprieve.
‘The End of the Moment We Had’, pp.47/8 (Pushkin Press, 2018)
The two seem to be running away from the war they know is coming, hoping to hide outside the current of time until it’s all passed.
There’s more to the story than just a downbeat anti-war tale, though. While the opening scenes have us picturing a group of drunken salarymen, the more our protagonist, Azuma, is singled out from the herd, the more we realise that this isn’t the case. He’s hiding from his daily life as much as from the news, relying on the woman to pay for the hotel, with only enough money for a buffet lunch and a can of beer. It’s little wonder that he wants to extend ‘the moment’ they have, even if it has to end once they leave the hotel – and it does, in a brutally honest manner…
However, compared to the voice of ‘My Place in Plural’, Azuma’s having a great time. This story revolves around a woman lying on her futon in a cramped, dirty apartment, unwilling to move more than is necessary for her to check out some blogs on her laptop. Occasionally, her mind wanders, and she imagines how her husband’s day is progressing, envisioning him slumped over an empty plate in a cheap café as he gets a nap in between part-time jobs.
As she lies there, lazing the day away, she reflects on her life, and particularly on the relationship with her husband. Gradually, we are told stories of their fights, or rather of the woman’s attacks on her mild-mannered partner, events that have more to do with her issues than his failings:
I have a deep need for someone to let me hurt them, I want to pull my husband down here to my level, where I’m wallowing, to be with me and to stay with me, to feel exactly what I’m feeling, I want to take these chunks of negative shit that I’m carrying around like rock candy crammed into my head and body, like bad junk that needs to be thrown away, and I want to pass them on to him, even though I’m not sure they can be passed on, I want to give him as much as I can, even a tiny bit would be enough.
‘My Place in Plural’, p.104
Of course, that isn’t how it always was, and the scenes she imagines of her husband in the café turn out to be more significant than they first appear.
Okada is introduced in the blurb as a ‘novelist-playwright’, and these two pieces certainly have the feel of short plays. The first story actually is an adaptation of stage work, and the first scenes, with the six friends stumbling off a train and down the street, have the air of stage directions. However, what connects them most is the voices of young people rambling to themselves, monologues of unfiltered thoughts. The first part of ‘The End of the Moment We Had’ is confused further by a series of back-and-forths, with the real tryst preceded by a parody when Azuma watches a movie with a woman he finds unattractive. It can be a little confusing, but it’s about the rhythm, and eventually the reader will find the pace of the stories.
If there’s one word to summarise the book, though, it would be desperation. There’s the first woman’s desire to talk more with Azuma at the cinema, the couple’s refusal to leave the love hotel and face up to the world outside, but above all, we feel it in the way the protagonist of the second story is unable to cope with the stark, dirty reality of her life. There are no cherry blossoms or tea ceremonies here, just cockroaches, mould and empty cans of beer on the floor. Even the mention of covering the tatami mats with cheap lino seems symbolic.
These are short pieces to be read in a single sitting, and while I can’t say they were perfect (the first story, especially, seemed to take too long to get to where it wanted to go), they are fascinating portrayals of humdrum lives, and rather different to a lot of the Japanese fiction we’re served up in the west. This is the sixth of these short contemporary works in the Pushkin series, and if you’ve enjoyed the others, I suspect this will be of interest, too. I trust there are more on the way for 2019 – it’s certainly a project worth continuing.