Truly Terrifying Things

Walter Nash

  • 51 Soko: To the Islands on the Other Side of the World by Michael Westlake
    Polygon, 258 pp, £8.95, September 1990, ISBN 0 7486 6085 2
  • Behind the Waterfall by Chinatsy Nakayama
    Virago, 213 pp, £12.99, November 1990, ISBN 1 85381 269 2
  • Dirty Faxes, and Other Stories by Andrew Davies
    Methuen, 243 pp, £13.99, October 1990, ISBN 0 413 63270 9

Yoshi, my visiting Japanese scholar, carried with him a little book of Everyday English Speech, out of which he was able to construct social uses ranging from the mildly unconventional to the downright alarming. ‘ARRO NASH!’, he would bellow as I entered Monday’s seminar, and on Friday afternoons, ‘Have a GOOD one, ya HEAH?’ – coyly, concupiscently, as though dismissing me, his pale grey crumbling mentor, to a furtive weekend of unspeakable amatory and alcoholic excess. We never quite got the hang of each other, code-wise. I think he may have been disappointed at my failure to respond in kind with ‘Hey, ma MAN!’ or ‘You betchar-ASS!’, professional courtesies not often heard by the banks of the Trent. For my part, I had some difficulty in understanding his general observations on life and literature, although I was very sorry when he went home. It diminished the hilarity of the shires.

In one way or another Yoshi kept coming to mind as I puzzled, eased, or intermittently ground and grinned my way through Michael Westlake’s 51 Soko – an ingenious, teasing, complex, at times impenetrable, often brilliantly parodic book, with a title that reads disconcertingly like a personal number-plate or a cosmetic preparation (‘51 Soko for firmer follicles’). It may be frivolous to jib at the mere naming of the work, but this is symptomatic of the whole: from the title onwards, the book charges its readers with the task of glossing the text, decoding the signals, and generally settling, for their own (seldom complete) satisfaction, the question of just what in the name of St Derrida and All Dickheads is going on here. It is a rewarding occupation as long as you feel able to keep all the clues in hand, or to decide that a clue is a clue and not just a hit of old rope. (Typically, the number 51 crops up in various contexts throughout the book, and I have yet to work out if this implies anything more than the pleasure of kaleidoscopic patterning.)

The title means, in fact, ‘51 letters’, and these epistles are addressed ‘to the islands on the other side of the world’ – meaning to Britain, as though from a distant country. One does not have to be much of a code-cracker to perceive Westlake’s intent, or to read his book as a modern variation on a traditional device practised by, for example, Swift and Montesquieu: the device of elaborating images of strangers, in order to suggest how strangers might see us in their own elaborated image. Thus we discern London in Lilliput; thus fictive Persia regards real Paris; thus merry Tokyo cries ARRO and have a GOOD one to the inscrutable Trent. For the distant country is, of course, Japan, and the imagined writers of letters from those islands to these are four Japanese gentlemen in various conditions of life and likelihood. They are a master chef, a businessman, a motorcycle production-line worker, and a character from classic fiction – Prince Genji, hero of the Lady Murasaki’s Tale.

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