Monday, 21 February 2011

Isle of Dreams - a novel by Keizo Hino


Isle of Dreams/Yume no shima was first published in Japan in 1985, just preceding the economic boom which in turn led to the overinflated valuation of property prices which would ultimately lead to the economic downturn at the end of the last millennium. The central character of Isle of Dreams, Shozo Sakai, aged 50 and widowed, is of the generation that witnessed both the poverty of the immediate post war years and a spectator to the economic ascension. At the beginning of the novel he is quietly in awe of the new Tokyo architecture which his company is constructing, Hino observes the shift in perspectives between the generations, ‘For Shozo and his contemporaries, buildings of steel and concrete were a goal in life, but for the next generation, they were no more than a starting point’. Often Shozo will get off the bus before reaching his destination to go back to examine a building more closely. Finding himself in one spot he reflects on the effects of the Tokyo bombing during the war, being slightly too young to remember it at first hand, he imagines the modern buildings engulfed in flames, Tokyo Tower collapsing in the immense heat. As Shozo traverses around districts of Tokyo; the Ginza, Tsukiji, and Tsukishima he encounters a manga convention,where the young participants are dressed up as their favourite characters, seeing them he reflects; Had Tokyo's neighbourhoods become such dreadful places that it was only here,on this artifical island,that these children could act out their fantasies? It was after all, he and his contemporaries who had produced that same metropolis. Another area Shozo is drawn to is the reclaimed land around Tokyo bay, walking there one day he is nearly knocked down by a motorcyclist dressed in black who when taking off her helmet Shozo discovers is a woman, incredulously to Shozo she offers him a lift. Walking again around the city another place that becomes an object of his curiosity is a shop window full of mannequins; the assistant arranging them has a familiarity. Shozo finds that his Sunday walks out on the reclaimed land offer him an opportunity to tap into his subconscious thoughts and desires, he feels detached from the past, his thinking is interrupted this time by a biker gang racing around, one falls off but the rest speed off leaving the fallen rider, approaching the body lying motionless Shozo recognises that it’s the woman who nearly ran him over, he hovers over her prostrate body caught in a moment of indecision, but hails a cab and takes her to a hospital. The next day he revisits the hospital to discover she’s signed herself out; he pays her bill and discovers her name, Yoko, and also her address.

Finding himself at the address, surprisingly the woman from the shop with the mannequins answers, is she Yoko’s sister? , as there’s a resemblance. Wandering out on the reclaimed land he’s not surprised when he encounters Yoko again, although this time she has a boy on the back of her bike, ‘Are you ready to go?’ she asks, they lead him to an island on the other side of the reclaimed land away from Tokyo Bay, walking through the overgrown bushes and trees Yoko cuts her head badly. Although not at first talkative, once on the island the boy demonstrates an almost extra sensory oneness with the nature of the island. This part of the novel’s setting is in complete contrast to the steel and concrete of the architecture at the beginning of the novel, amongst the overgrown trees and vegetation of the island Shozo makes out old houses and harbour buildings that probably date back to the time of Commodore Perry, which highlights one of the central themes of the novel, the transience of civilisations and the battle of man vs. nature, the novel also carries an allegorical environmental message which is conveyed in the fate of the birds of the island. The attention shifts focus of the main character at the closing of the novel, which reveals a few enigma's within the text. Hino’s writing is noted for being similar to J.G Ballard, reading this novel also brought to mind William Golding.

Isle of Dreams is published by Dalkey Archive Press, and translated by Charles de Wolf who has previously translated short stories by Akutagawa Ryunosuke collected in Mandarins. Keizo Hino won many literary prizes including the Tanizaki Prize and the Akutagawa Prize.

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