Thursday, March 23, 2017

A Psychological Thriller in Japan

A Quiet Place by Japanese mystery writer Seicho Matsumoto (1909–1992) is classified as a "psychological thriller." It's entirely centered on one character: Tsuneo Asai and his reaction to the sudden death of his wife Eiko. Because she already suffered from heart disease, her death in itself was not shocking, and Asai and her family perform the standard Japanese funeral rites. Of course for the American reader, these and other unfamiliar Japanese customs in the book create fascinating reading, but the point of the book is not to offer anthropological study, but to set up for a tale of suspense and action.

What disturbed Asai, once he dealt with the formalities, was that Eiko had died while walking on a strange street in Tokyo far from her home and far from the other Tokyo locations that he was aware she often visited. She had entered a small shop on the street when she became ill, but he soon learns that the shop owner had no idea of who she was or why she was walking by.

Asai thought he knew about all Eiko's daily activities, such as taking a class in writing haiku, so he feels a need to know what she had been doing in this neighborhood of beautiful and expensive homes mixed (strangely) with "couples hotels" where lovers could meet for a short or long assignation. At first Asai anonymously hires a detective firm to investigate the circumstances, but soon becomes involved in his own investigations, and immerses himself in a project of discovery that goes off the deep end. The plot  and character development that follow are extraordinary, but further discussion would be a very terrible spoiler, and you should read this book for yourself!

From the very beginning of the book we learn that Asai is much more dedicated as a "salaryman" than as a husband. His first thoughts on receiving the call from his wife's shocked and grieving sister and father are on his obligation to spare the business sensibilities of his superior in the government bureaucracy where he works and the feelings of their clients with whom he is having dinner. They seem more concerned about the loss of his wife, in a way, than he does.

While the foods being consumed at this and other meals in the tale is briefly described or at least listed, the real role of food in this novel is unusual and interesting. Asai's job in a government office is promoting agriculture in rural Japan. His education in a small college put him at a disadvantage in competition with other more prestigiously educated and socially privileged colleagues, so he worked extremely hard to become an expert at helping traditional rice farmers make a transition to production of beef and other more valuable commodities, as well as understanding the meat-packing industry and working with plant owners. His lectures and consultations were very well-received and in high demand. This paragraph explains:
"Asai made an effort to throw himself into his work. He was sent to Ishikawa and Yamanashi on government business. Farmers in both prefectures were interested in moving away from the cultivation of rice and developing their meat-processing industry. Asai went on a week’s tour, invited by local agricultural cooperatives to give lectures on the meat industry in their town or village. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry had been trying to deal with the national rice surplus by getting farmers to reduce the acreage devoted to the cultivation of rice, but they knew their measures were inefficient. Local farming families also knew that this policy was doing nothing to improve their prospects. In the current recession, the present system of food control was just not working, and the future looked grim. The farmers felt that the recent trend of leaving the countryside in the off season to find outside work was not what their job should be about. Lately, even the women were being forced to go to the cities to find jobs to supplement their falling income." (Kindle Locations 1658-1665). 
Asai's ambition and commitment to his job motivated much of  his action in the book, and the description of this "salaryman" ethic was one of the most fascinating parts of the psychological portrait.

I wrote about another novel by Matsumoto a couple of years ago here: Inspector Imanishi Eats Sushi. He was a very prolific author, although only a few of his works have been translated into English, and this translation dates only to 2016. I hope to read more!

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