Sunday, 16 October 2011

A Room Where The Star Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard

Perhaps the significance of this novel, the first translation of Levy Hideo to appear in English may pass by the general reader, I hope it doesn't, Ian Hideo Levy is an American born writer who writes primarily in Japanese, his novel Tiananmen/ Ten'anmon, from 1996 was nominated for the Akutagwa Prize. A Room Where The Star Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard/Seijoki no kikoenai heya, was first published in Japan by Kodansha in 1992 and won the Noma Literary Award for New Writers, recently it has been published in an English translation by Christopher D. Scott by Columbia University Press. The jacket of the novel comes with quotes from Oe Kenzaburo, Tawada Yoko and Ann Sherif, who likens the novel to Oe's novel A Personal Matter. Opening at the end of 1967 the novel follows Ben Isaac, the son of Jacob Issac, (who works at the American consulate in Tokyo), Ben spent most of his youth living in consulates in Taiwan, Phnom Penn, Shanghai, the American consulate building overlooks Yamashita Park, the Stars and Stripes flag blows in the breeze outside of Ben's window, the consulate building also attracts groups of Japanese protesters, shouting out, Yankee go home!, angry at the Anpo and the Vietnam War. The novel comes to us in three parts, the middle one, The End of November, mainly charts Ben's time back in the U.S, living with his mother who had divorced from Ben's father, who had married again to a Chinese woman, Gui-lan, producing another son, Ben's younger brother, Jeffrey. In The End of November the narrative recollects the funeral of J.F.K, Ben's memories of his mother's plight as she succumbs to the doctors sedatives, sent to her presumably form his father, and of an informing view of a memorial of the rising of the Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima. Over the course of the three parts of the novel the narrative dips in and out of moments from Ben's past and present lives, the pictures of his life in Japan and his American life contrast and merge with one another.

The main narrative follows Ben in Japan, and unable to handle his father's overbearing and remonstrating temperament Ben runs away from him and also of the protection of the consulate. After enrolling at a Center of International Studies he meets Ando Yoshiharu, a student who takes Ben under his wing and puts him up. Ben begins to succumb to the gravitational pull of Shinjuku, and he begins to decode the Kana and Kanji characters appearing all around him, which will provide the means to communicate his way out of his frustrated linguistic isolation. Ben seems to be in awe of Ando, he studies the contents of his 4 and a half tatami studio flat, the books he reads, the authors he reads, the image torn from a magazine of a muscled writer pinned to Ando's wall appears at various points in the novel, Ben identifies with the stuttering Mizoguchi of Mishima's novel Kinkakuji, as he struggles to master his new language. As the novel progresses Ben's assimilation grows deeper and deeper, casting off his gaijin identity, with this fading of his gaijin identity, his gaijin perspective also begins to recede. Ben takes the rather definitive step of burning his consulate Id card and with Ando acting as his guarantor Ben finds work in a small restaurant as a waiter. The novel begins from the disorientated perspective of a gaijin and follows Ben as he slowly assimilates into Japanese culture and language, some of the scenes I thought at first could be construed as making imaginative leaps, but contemplating on them further they seemed to reflect accurately the thoughts of a teenage mind, compounded by Ben's situation of finding himself in an unfamiliar culture, which in turn made me contemplate the novel from the perspective of someone who has no experience of visiting or living in Japan. In his introduction Christopher D. Scott reflects of Levy - It would be more accurate to say that Levy's work is about the struggle or productive tension between writing in Japanese and not being Japanese, or the dilemma of being a writer of Japanese but not a Japanese writer. Here lies the real power and significance of his literary project: it demonstrates that one does not have to be Japanese in order to write or have a voice in Japanese. Christopher D. Scott also points out other writers of border-crossing literature, (ekkyo bungaku); Tawada Yoko, Mizumura Minae, Yang Yin among others whose writings challenge perspectives of national identity and of national literatures. The novel is brief, just over a hundred pages, and at it's end we get the impression that Ben's story is at the beginning of a much longer journey.

A Room Where the Star Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard at Columbia Uinversity Press



parrish lantern said...

I've just seen this book elsewhere on the net & had pondered on its merits, only afterwards to read your post - serendipity. will reappraise & find out more. thanks.

me. said...

Although in essence the story is presented quite straight forwardly, it offers a nuanced description of the experiences of a young American realigning himself to life in Japan at the end of the 1960's, the novel addresses a number of issues. It's an interesting novel, Levy Hideo's writing raises many questions. Many thanks for your comments!.