Tuesday, September 08, 2020

A Fantasy of an Alternate Life

A Man by Keiichiro Hirano
English edition published June, 2020.
"In all honesty, I don’t like when other Zainichi  [that is, people whose families immigrated to Japan from Korea] try to claim me, as though we were somehow separate and special. ... Whether it’s being a lawyer or being Japanese, the same applies. It’s unbearable to have your identity summed up by one thing and one thing only and for other people to have control over what that is.” (p. 119). 
"Basically, Kido hated the very idea of collecting human beings into categories. That was the sole reason he found his Zainichi background bothersome. It should have gone without saying that some Zainichi would be good people and some bad, and there would be things about the good Zainichi that he disliked as well as things about the bad Zainichi that were good even if he didn’t know it." (p. 217). 
A Man by Keiichiro Hirano is a mystery novel with a number of very interesting themes. It takes place in several locations in big cities and very small villages in Japan in the few years after the disastrous earthquake and nuclear power plant meltdown of 2011. I enjoyed reading it for a number of reasons, not the least of which that the characters live in a very 21st century way, depending on Facebook, the internet, popular culture and technology, and current literature. I loved Hirano's many references to modern writers, both Japanese and Western.

One phrase from the book, "a fantasy of an alternate life" (p. 155) summarizes the principal theme, expressed in the lives of several characters. They either ponder alternate life as a fantasy, or actually act out the fantasy by trading family register papers and then living as someone other than their natural born selves.

The mystery plot primarily centers on a lawyer, Kido, who investigates several such cases while harboring fantasies about his own identity and how it might have been other. He thinks a lot about his birth as a Zainichi -- that is, his grandparents came from Korea so he is socially inferior to native Japanese people. His wife's family had been reluctant to accept him, as they were not Zainichi, and he also worries deeply about ingrained racism against Koreans that's embedded, seemingly permanently, in Japanese attitudes. I have never read much about this group and how the Japanese treat them, so I found the exploration of bigotry and discrimination of this group in Japan very interesting.

Less profound details in the book are very enjoyable. Hirano has an amazing powers of discriminating between individual Japanese faces, and of delineating the nuances of facial expressions. If you think Japanese people look very similar to one another, you should read what he says about their appearance!

In A Man, the characters often meet and interact in bars and restaurants, and as always I enjoyed the recounting of what they ate, drank, and the aromas they perceived. Here are a couple of interesting descriptions of drinking alcoholic beverages, that show the type of detail that the author is master of:
"Kido poured himself a glass. The vodka was so deliciously cold the consistency was thick, and it had a kick to it like a sweet blaze in his mouth. The scent went up into his nose, recalling faint flashes of the doctor swabbing his arm before a shot in childhood, when he had for the first time discovered the existence of something called 'alcohol.' ... When she was done, the vodka gimlet was so thoroughly shaken it fizzed as she poured it into the frosty glass. Kido found it well chilled and smooth and detected a mellow sparkle to the flavor. " (pp. 38 & 52-53).
"For his first drink, Kido ordered a vodka gimlet, remembering Misuzu. His drink of choice for a long time had been a balalaika, but he’d ordered a gimlet on impulse that night in Arakicho and found himself unable to go back to the sweetness of Cointreau ever since, even though he’d sworn by it since he was a young man." (p. 94). 
A typical description highlighted Kido's perception of the interior a train car coming back from the memorial service for a friend. This trip, like many of his experiences, combined two elements: train travel, an element of modern life, and traditional family and social life in Japan:
"The interior of the bullet train had looked somehow grotesque under the weight of his exhaustion and the sharp fluorescent lights. While many passengers dozed, several drunken groups chattered incessantly. The air in the car was stagnant and heavy, laced with the stench of workday sweat, beer, and some pungent junk food, perhaps dried squid. Kido’s suit was tinged with the added scent of the incense he had burned for his friend." (p. 98).
I'm quoting just one example of a food description. Rather than one of the many images of Japanese specialties, I've chosen the Kido's enjoyment of a special French style of omelet.
"For lunch, they went to a well-known restaurant attached to the station that served Mont-Saint-Michel cuisine. Over souffléed omelets so fluffy the eggs had been whipped into a froth, they shared their impressions ... [Kido] cut into the hearty, well-fluffed omelet on his plate. Cooked to the ideal golden hue, it was folded in half, and frothy egg overflowed from the seam with such impudence that Kido almost felt thwarted. It made him think of molten lava rushing toward the sea. (p. 115 & 118). 
Author Keiichiro Hirano apparently has been very popular in Japan for quite a while, but this is one of the first of his works to be translated into English. As a follow-up, I read one of his short stories, "The Bees that Disappeared," published in Granta a few years ago. (link) In it, he portrayed another very quirky and entertaining character living in a Japanese village.

This review © 2020 mae sander posted in mae food dot blog spot dot com.


Divers and Sundry said...

Thanks for this suggestion. I miss libraries :( but will certainly try to remember to look for this book. The author is unfamiliar to me but sounds like the type of story and writing I'd enjoy. I'm off to read the short story now. Thanks for that link :)

Lavender and Lime (http://tandysinclair.com) said...

It's before breakfast time here and that description of the omelette has me ready to get up and eat!

Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

This sounds like an interesting read. I know next to nothing about modern day Japan, even though I have a friend from the states who teaches English there. It's too bad even the Japanese find discrimination among themselves. Thanks for this nice review.

A Day in the Life on the Farm said...

It is interesting how all cultures seem to have the same problems.