Tuesday 25 July 2017

In the Mind of Another

One of the lovely aspects of fiction is to be able to enter other minds, and this occurs in an especially touching way when the character in whose mind one finds oneself lives in a society different from one's own.

For Western readers, a novel by the Japanese author Hiromi Kawakami has this effect. The novel is translated as Strange Weather in Tokyo. It's about a woman, Tsukiko, who at the start of the story is age 37, who works in an office. Although she has had boyfriends, they seem not to have lasted long, and she doesn't seem to have close women friends. One evening she is in a bar, near the station, and happens to see, there, a man who is perhaps in his seventies, who recognizes her. He was her teacher of Japanese in secondary school. They keep running into each other, in this bar, and they chat. She calls him Sensei, "Teacher." They don't seem to have much in common. He remembers that, at school, she wasn't very good at Japanese. She remembers, too, that she wasn't very interested in it.

Sensei is a widower. After the meet several times in the bar, he invites her, after a good deal of sake drinking, to his home, which is nearby. Although reluctant, she goes along. The house is cluttered. It's full of things that other people would have thrown away. He gives her something to drink, and some crackers to eat.

Then Sensei starts to read a newspaper. It's not that day's newspaper, but one that has been discarded, which he has picked up from somewhere. He seems to have forgotten that Tsukiko is there. She speaks to him, and he replies: "Would you like to read the newspaper?" he asks.

Sensei goes into the next room and brings back some things: several old clay tea-pots that he has saved from railway take-out meals he had bought many years previously, and a collection of electric batteries that have long since lost their charge. He talks about them a bit. The chapter ends with him reciting three lines of a poem, and with him closing his eyes, nodding off, perhaps asleep. In the pale light of the moon, Tsukiko gazes at the batteries.

An effect the book had on me is that which one is supposed to attain though mindfulness. I would read a chapter—the chapters are short—then look up, and notice what I saw. On one occasion it was a pepper pot, which had been left on a wooden table. I looked at the small glass pot, which was octagonal, and had a silver-coloured metal top, pierced with thirteen small holes in a star pattern. I noticed the relation of the pot to the table, and to the window sill, and to the top of a straight-back chair, the seat of which was under the table. I saw the relation of these objects to each other.

Is this, I thought, a Japanese way? A way of being able to see and experience such spatial layouts and arrangements. A nineteenth-century Western way is quite different. The essayist and art critic John Ruskin, for instance, might have recommended that I look at the salt-cellar, and reflect that someone who had a training in art had drawn it, that someone else had made a model of it, someone else had arranged for it to be moulded in glass, and for the metal lid, with its holes in it, to be manufactured. Each of these people would have got up in the morning, eaten something for breakfast, gone to work, chatted with their work mates, as they made these things for us to use.

Kawakami's book continues with Tsukiko and Sensei getting along with one another, then falling out because he likes the Giants baseball team, whereas she does not. This is followed by a period when they notice each other but refuse to talk. Then they start to talk again. They go on expeditions of several kinds. They chat, sometimes quite a bit, sometimes not much at all. As readers we are within Tsukiko's mind. It is a mind that is uncertain, thoughtful but confused, wondering, lonely. And, as one may imagine, the novel is a love story.

Kawakami, H. (2012). Strange Weather in Tokyo (A. M. Powell, Trans.). London: Portobello Books.

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