I was prompted to buy In Search of a Distant Voice because Amazon recommended it to me and, for once, they seemed to have actually found the sort of thing I might like. The recommendation came because of the Haruki Murakami books I’d bought from them, and I thought Yamada’s novel sounded a bit Murakami-ish, so gave it a go.
I was wrong about that “a bit”. It feels totally Murakami-ish, right from the start:
“Tsuneo got up at four-thirty in the morning. He was in the Otemachi Multi-Office Government Complex in Tokyo, in the rest station on the third floor of Building One. Four-thirty was pretty early, it’s true, but that’s how it goes.” (p. 1)
The studied casualness of that “pretty early, it’s true, but that’s how it goes” sounds almost like a parody of the sort of stylistic tic Murakami employs, like a doctor’s bedside manner, to set his readers at ease, as if he’s trying to let you know that he’s just this, you know, normal kind of guy who somehow had this plain weird thing happen to him. In his homeland, Murakami is known for his casual tone. Though not the first to do so, he’s noted for using the most informal Japanese word boku, rather than the traditional, and more literary, watashi, as his narrator’s word for “I”. (I can’t speak Japanese; this comes from Jay Rubin’s book, Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words). I don’t know how much of an impact Murakami has had on the culture of his homeland, aside from being very popular, so it’s difficult to tell if Yamada, in writing like this, is simply adopting a commercial style. Of the few other contemporary Japanese writers I’ve read, Banana Yoshimoto (yes, that’s a name, not a fruit drink) is another one who sounds very Murakami-ish. (Funnily enough, the only other contemporary Japanese author I’ve read, and the only one who doesn’t sound like Haruki Murakami, is the unrelated Ryu Murakami.) But aside from the style, one thing that links Haruki Murakami with these two is the dreamy strangeness of their plots, which was what I was after anyway, so I’m not going to complain about Yamada’s Murakami-ness. (The translator, Michael Emmerich, has also translated the aforementioned Banana, so maybe that has something to do with it.)
In Search of a Distant Voice is about Kasama Tsuneo, a young man working for Japanese immigration, who one day starts to hear a woman’s voice in his head. Tsuneo has a bit of a mystery in his past — something happened eight years before, in Portland, Oregon, which sent him running back to Japan desperately determined “to be normal”. Once he’s got over the shock of hearing this voice, and once he’s decided he’s not mad, he tries talking to it.
There are a few moments in the book which tread that wonderful line between dark and comic, moments both excruciating and disturbing, as Tsuneo tries to work out if the woman’s voice belongs to a real person (and not a dead or hallucinated one), but this dangerous tone isn’t kept up, and for most of the time the book doesn’t quite know (or let the reader know) what sort of story it’s telling. For instance, there’s an obvious mystery about Tsuneo — just what happened to him in Portland? — as well as about the woman — who is she? — and as, at the end, all is revealed about Tsuneo’s past, I expected to have the other mystery resolved, too. I don’t want to give the ending away by saying this, but I think I’d have enjoyed the book more if I had been prepared for the way it leaves some things unresolved. Now, I don’t mind unresolved. It can create quite a subtle and emotional depth to a story. But if you get unresolved when you’ve been led to expect resolved, that emotion tends to be frustration, which isn’t either subtle or enjoyable.
Having said that, I liked the book enough (after mentally readjusting my view of what it was, having finished it). At worst, it suffers from being a short novel with only the depth of a short story — though in that it could have been worse: too many books nowadays are much longer and don’t even have that depth (grumble, grumble, where’s my cardigan…) Read for atmosphere alone, as a sort of mood piece, or as a sort of Kafka-esque portrait of modern man in search of a soul, it has nevertheless intrigued me enough to give Yamada’s other novel, Strangers, a go.