Sunday, 25 March 2012

The Navidad Incident

Amongst Haikasoru's latest offerings is The Navidad Incident, a Tanizaki Prize winning novel by Natsuki Ikezawa translated by Alfred Birnbaum, who has also previously translated Ikezawa's A Burden of Flowers and On a Small Bridge in Iraq. Coming with the subtitle, The Downfall of Matias Guili, the novel is a satirical and ingenious history of colonialism and the story of an entrepreneurial leader, Matias Guili, alluding on occasion to the La Navidad story of Christopher Columbus. Set on an imagined archipelago in the south pacific whose islands are a natural paradise, the island's politics are caught between the influences of America and Japan. The novel opens with Guili waiting for a delegation of Japanese veterans to arrive, although a spate of protests threaten to upset the visit, posters with slogans daubed on them appear posted up around the city, a torii gate is pushed over by a gang of youths. During the delegates visit other curious happenings occur, the Japanese flag is mysteriously engulfed in flames in mid ceremony and furthering perplexity the bus carrying the delegates completely vanishes along with the delegates inside it. From this puzzling turn of events comes a narrative of Navidad's history, colonised throughout the past few hundred years by various nations expanding their empires, occupied by the Japanese during the Pacific War and then as a protectorate of the U.S.A., and before this by the Germans and Portuguese. During the years of the Japanese occupation   Matias is taken under the wing of Lieutenant Ryuzoji, who arranges for Matias to study and work in Japan beginning his induction into the ways of trade and commerce and also igniting his infatuation with the country, in his presidential residence he surrounds himself with it's culture; a Japanese bath and maid, Japanese sashimi breakfast, a fitted tatami room with Kakemono with himself in portrait and is chauffeured around in a Nissan limo. Returning to Navidad after his time in Japan his eye for opportunity finds that he can make a bundle from importing Japanese hot pot ramen and through his political leanings and slight manipulation finds himself a presidential candidate  sponsored by Cornelius, Matias's political sage and mentor. His long presidency is interrupted by the brief reshuffle of power to his political rival, Bonhomme Tamang, who held allegiances with America who comes to a mysterious end. The story of Matias and Navidad runs along another story line, an additional  development in Navidad's relationship with Japan, is the request that a bay is used as a location to stock pile oil in the shape of moored Japanese tankers, Matias balances up the request and ponders how much he will make from it.

Along with Matias the novel introduces an assortment of characters each accompanied with a rundown of their history as they appear, Angelina, whom Matias meets in Manila proposed to and was turned down by runs a bar and brothel which Matias organised on a condition she insisted upon instead of marriage, a gay couple, (Ketch and Joel), who frequent the bar, and a newly arrived  waitress who has the talent of envisioning the future piques Matias's curiosity as being someone who could prove useful to him in the future, he decides to rename her Ameliana, she has a vision of the proposed deal with the Japanese concerning the stockpiling of the oil. Matias also at times confides in a ghost called Lee Bo or Leigh Beau, set in the eighteenth century his story takes in a journey on board a ship of the East India Company from Palau to Great Britain, this narrative too examines the implications and consequences of colonialism, all of these introductions act as brief stories within the story, creating numerous narratives that work into the main of the novel. Through these entwining narratives comes numerous reports of bizarre sightings of the missing bus of delegates, it's seen taking off behind a Boeing 737, an underwater fisherman catches a brief glimpse of it, another time it is seen walking into a bar and ordering a round of soft drinks, briefly it is seen in the night sky as a newly discovered constellation of stars before disappearing again. Ameliana is taking part in the Yuuka Yuumai celebrations festival on Melchor Island, Matias puts everything on hold to go incognito in order to spy on her.

The novel builds at it's own fantastic pace connecting all of these bizarre and wonderfully ingenious narratives and perspectives, sporadically through the novel we listen in on the conversation and rumour of the locals who gather to discuss the events going on and of Matias's dark history, and it's darkness becomes darker as the novel proceeds, the pertinence of this unofficial history slowly becomes more apparent, seeping out the truth, informing the reader of all of Matias's shady dealings and deeds, the Navidad Teihoku Hotel, replete with it's broken revolving restaurant seems to be an embodiment of all that Matias represents. Mixing satire with elements of magical realism this is a pitch perfect novel and translation which leaves a great deal for the reader to judge for themselves.

The Navidad Incident: The Downfall of Matias Guili at Haikasoru


@parridhlantern said...

The more I read about this the more it has appeal & now have found it's in a kindle format,so has gone on my wishlist.

me. said...

I did read his short story collection, Still Lives, a long time ago, which I think I'll have to re-read in the near future. It's a great novel, I'm sure you'll enjoy it, well recommended.