Watching the river flowing under Ochanomizu Bridge, we read as Akaki, (our narrator), muses on bridges mentioned in the works of Kafu, and also that of Gogol, another of his favourite authors. He's on the bridge waiting to meet a man called Yamakawa, we follow his thoughts on Gogol and that he had a khaki overcoat, where is it now?, lost, mislaid?. As his story begins we learn that he's forty years old and has two children, married for twelve years, and that he leads a vigil like existence, a vigil for what were not sure. Arising early that morning the phrases, 'The early bird catches the worm' and the Japanese equivalent, 'Early rising is three pence/mon to the good', echo in his thoughts, and thinking about his old overcoat leads him to think over Gogol's story 'The Overcoat', his name resembles that of the hero too, Akaky Akakievich. His fascination with Gogol is touched upon again, 'To me, Gogol wasn't just some Russian guy who lived over one hundred years ago. And he wasn't just a 'great writer of 'Russian Literature', nor the founder of realism. You might say he was my fate'. Thinking back on the overcoat he had worn some twenty years ago, Akaki begins to recall his childhood. The details of his memories appear to be difficult to grasp, but it's as if he were turning the dial on the lens of a microscope, trying to focus in to get the clearest image possible of these past events, his thought patterns sometime seem to arrive randomly too, 'What on earth have I been thinking about all this time?, true I've stayed alive this whole time so I must have thought about things.' he reflects on the nature of his thinking.
The novel follows the narrator in his attempt to track down his missing overcoat, which he likens to a pilgrimage of sorts, he makes the contrast to Kobo-Daishi (Kukai), with a slight humour. Revisiting the places of his youth, we return with him to the old three mat room he used to rent from the Ishida family, when he lived with the Koga brothers when he first arrived in Tokyo to study at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, the same university in which the novelist Futabatei Shimei studied Russian. Chapter by chapter we go back further into Akaki's past, born in northern Korea in the early thirties, where he stayed until Japan's defeat, the things that he encounters as he retraces the places he went to twenty years ago in his student days searching for his coat reignite memories of his childhood, the layered narrative of Sebald isn't too far away, although this novel was first originally published in Japan in 1973, under the name Hasamiuchi. Akaki navigates along the Keihin-Tohoku train line revisiting places and people from twenty years back, revisiting his old pawn shop - pursuing his coat, and seeing a cinema poster and hearing an old song provoke memories of his formative years in Korea, - the ondol underfloor heating in their old house, his old schools, bombing raids as the Soviets advanced, he looks back as himself as a boy sensing something much larger than himself coming to an end. Listening in on what he thinks could be the Emperor's muffled broadcast through a neighbours wall he recounts the night he and his brother burn their collection of magazines and records of Japanese ballads, singing the songs as the flames engulf the albums, clinging onto his father's army beret, but that too gets consigned to the flames. His grandmother had died in a concentration camp, and their house impounded by the Korean civil guard, 'take what you can in your hands, leave in thirty minutes', his story of repatriation changes to that of a confession of a kind, of his inner feelings and thoughts addressed to his elder brother. The narrative interweaves between flowing points in time and history, a history not perceived in the grand scale, but seen in the eyes of a boy who's watching history move as if on an opposite shore, or parallel.
This novel is many things, informative, moving, enigmatic, literary and at times has a subtle philosophical humour to it, Goto Meisei incorporated the auto-biographical in telling Akaki's history. Tom Gill's translation in this, I hope the first of many translations of Goto's into English, is seamless.