Saturday, December 4, 2010

Things unsaid

Little Pieces – This Side of Japan

Michael Hoffman

Virtual Bookroom Publishing

This book has been a challenge to read and review. The stories it contains are rather like the dragonflies that appear in one of them – seemingly simple and light, yet elusive to the hand seeking to pin down and label them. If the art of a good short story lies less in the words it is made of than in the negative spaces between those words , then author Michael Hoffman is clearly an artist of considerable skill.

In these six spare stories set in contemporary Japan, Hoffman’s characters struggle with alienation, the claustrophobic binds of family and lack of direction. In stories like ‘The Miracle’ and ‘The Concussion’, both largely feverish monologues, we are led into the complex interior lives of their troubled protagonists as they grapple with their demons. Ambivalence is a dominant theme in these stories, as is a distinct preoccupation with violent death; characters either dream about bloody rampages, obsess over news reports of murders, contemplate (but step away from) suicide, or succumb to violence either as perpetrator or victim. The repetitive appearances of these little scenes through the book are one of the few things that rankle about this otherwise well written book. If these do not deter the reader, it is only because Hoffman’s gentle yet incisive eye ensures that these are neither dark stories nor repulsive characters.

First Snow’, which sets the tone and pace of this book, is a description of an encounter between a directionless, unemployed man and the woman who was once his babysitter. The evening progresses from reminiscence to confession; he dreams of escape, she seeks redemption for a past indiscretion. The falling snow seems to symbolize the freedom of unburdening for her; he realizes he needs to look inward for the answers he seeks. ‘It’s only when I open my eyes that I feel cold…” he thinks, poised on the threshold between his old life and the unknown new.

Dragonflies’ , the longest story in this collection, cunningly reveals layers of ideas as it alternates between the lives of Hiranuma and Sawamoto, both middle aged men who have been friends since childhood. One, a writer of some renown, struggles to write an essay on a revered peer, even as he puzzles over his wife Shizuko’s agitation over her music teacher’s seeming dalliance with a young girl. Her real reasons for her anger soon become evident, leaving him startled and hurt, yet also making him realize some important things about his own life. The other, Sawamoto, a philandering college professor and self confessed “bad man”, faced with losing his job to a more dynamic colleague, drunkenly ponders suicide and rues the pointlessness of love, only to go home and be surprised by its presence in his life. Running parallel to this story is a tale about a painting so aggrandized that it invariably disappoints the people who flock to view it. What this painting symbolizes – love, good reputation, Shizuko or even Sawamoto himself – is left entirely to our interpretation. So also the miracle in the story of that name, which could be any one of a number of things – the calm self assurance of Emi’s new friend; the hope he suggests for her future; the fact that, despite their darkest fears, neither Emi nor her mother is murdered by the end of the story. Or is it the metamorphosis of Emi’s mother from tormenter to protector?

My favourite story in the book – ‘Sonoko’ – is about a woman who escapes her colleagues, her overbearing mother and an ardent suitor, for the solitude of a hotel room, a book and conversations with her deceased father . ‘Sipping scalding tea with my eyes closed …. That is the greatest happiness we humans can know on earth,” she thinks, as she too, like Tamaki in First Snow’, turns inward for solace. Sonoko is, in direct contrast to Hoffman’s other female characters, at peace with herself and her devoted study of 12th century Japanese literature. Perhaps this peace is a result of her dying father’s last words to her, claiming to be an alien from another world . For she lives two lives, as he too claims to have done,switching periodically from ‘‘..modern, single, financially independent woman..’ to herself. Solitude is her true love - her Genji - for which she calmly chooses to embrace death (you guessed it, a violent one) through one last, socially appropriate gesture.

Crises of faith seem to be a strong subtext in atleast four of these stories. Nearly all of Hoffman’s central characters are Christian ( a curious fact given that Japan is predominantly Shinto). Emi in ‘The Miracle’ constantly dialogues with her God, as she struggles to keep her fragile hold on her sanity ; Stephen in ‘The Concussion’ turns away from Christ in a gesture of rebellion against his gentle missionary parents. Elsewhere characters debate God’s presence, cling to their pastors, obsess over death – clearly faith, in Hoffman’s Japan, is as much a source of distress as comfort. Even when a character isn't overtly Christian, Hoffman seems unable to keep him free of religious symbolism - Tamaki in 'First Snow' dreams of moving to India, 'a world of golden temples gleaming under a searing sun'; Sawamoto quips about travelling to India to bathe in the Ganges, an act typically associated with spiritual cleansing.

Hoffman also enjoys teasing his readers along. ‘The Concussion’ seems to doff its hat at Kafka with its opening lines – an elderly character awaiting trial for a crime he is unaware of – then follows in the wake of his reminiscences as he traces the path of his violent life – and his rage - back to a single childhood incident. Bit by bit, you realize that his prison and his captor exist entirely in his mind and what he really seeks is forgiveness for an entirely different crime. I also enjoyed the structure of ‘Little Pieces’, the final story in the book, which swings seamlessly between four different voices, to tell us the strange and tragic story of Sayaka and Kenichi, before ending in a disturbing freeze frame right in the middle of a conversation about death.

Aside from the writer’s predilection with those twin themes, - Christianity and death by bludgeoning – elements that do not always justify their presence, ‘Little Pieces’ is an elegant and well observed examination of the human condition.

1 comment:

  1. An unusual set of short stories. Wonder what the author's background is and how long he lived in Japan, if he did?