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.

Here they are, then, four representative specimens of Nipponymity, contemplating typical aspects of Britishness and discovering all manner of links and parallels between the two island cultures – some of them amusingly absurd, some both amusing and illuminating, in the way that a parable or a poetic metaphor can illuminate. The topics they touch on range from stamp-collecting to romantic fiction, from sunflowers to Sumo wrestling, from tunnels to four truly terrifying things – defined in a letter to weatherman Michael Fish as storms, earthquakes, fire and fathers. Their addressees, equally diverse, include personages past and present, real and fictional – for the essence of the book is miscellany and mélange, the shifted reference, the planned haphazard, the melding of literal and figurative, the brilliant subversion of all notions of category and order. Genji, as one might expect, writes exclusively to women (including Mandy Rice-Davies, the Andrews Sisters and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Ramsay), and displays an endearing capacity for romantic aberration, as when he assumes from her name that Barbara Windsor must be one of our royal house, the Third Princess after Di and Fergie. Being the creation of a woman, he feels that women are his most plausible interpreters. In this particular connection, however, he makes observations that can be taken as general principles for the reading of a literary work. ‘I discovered that I was not immutable,’ he says, ‘as my recurrent life took on shades of difference according to who was reading about me.’ And again: ‘Not only were my native readers importing knowledge into their readings which required all of my wit to grasp, but I experienced for the first time the terrors of being rewritten in languages other than Japanese.’

In the spirit of Genji’s discovery, 51 Soko repeatedly implies the role of chance, change and presupposition – the reader’s presupposition – in the creation and re-creation of a work of literature. ‘Is this a text?’ – ‘If you think so’; ‘Who is the writer?’ – ‘That depends on the reader.’ Postgraduate students of literary theory will love it. Devotees of the Amstrad, the Apple and the IBM may feel that this is fiction as the future will know it, when a program may tell a story, an index may be read as a parable, or lists of things may be construed in random order. As far as I can make out, a reader might enter the book at any point, take any path through its discursive network, and still come by flip and flop to Alice’s conclusion: ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas – only I don’t know exactly what they are!’ But at least it tells me a great deal about life in Japan as a Briton sees it.

Life in Japan as the Japanese see it – or more precisely, as Japanese women see it – is the matter of Behind the Waterfall. The book is a collection of three narratives, with three major characters, all female, each to some extent beset by the beastliness, bureaucracy or brotherly machinations of the male. (We are speaking of homo Japonicus, a crudely cunning operator who apparently likes a liberated lady, but likes her best of all at home, making tea or fixing the futons while he is out drinking with the chaps; the courtly Genji would find him a bore.) Not that the book is to be read as a feminist tract, or (as Clive James resonantly declares on the cover) ‘a voice for a new generation of adventurous women’. The stories as a whole are singularly lacking in the aggression or combativeness that such a summary might imply. If they make a common claim on behalf of women, it is best expressed in the image that provides the title for the first narrative as well as for the whole volume. Behind the waterfall is a chamber of refuge and stillness, a private space, a room of one’s own (Virginia Woolf’s metaphor comes readily to mind). The heroine of the first story is a child, a talented young actress, exiled by her talent from the companionships of childhood, tiptoeing defensively round the rumbling adult realm of intrigues and antagonisms, but coming at last into her own, her private space – and indeed her position of power – when she puts on make-up and costume and assumes her stage presence.

The theme of the private room is implied in the title of the second narrative, ‘The Sound of Wings’. The central character is called Tsuru, which means ‘crane’; her story reflects the fable of a man who once rescued a helpless bird, and was rewarded with a bride who every night wove priceless fabrics for him, on the sole condition that he should never look into the room where she worked. He broke his word, looked into the room, and discovered that the crane-woman wove the cloth from her own feathers. When she found that he had been spying on her, she flew away. The Tsuru of our story is in effect the crane-bride, anxious to please and support her clever, protective, ostensibly tolerant husband, even after she has fallen romantically in love with a younger man, to the general disapproval of her women friends. She suppresses her feelings, ends the affair, and then discovers that her husband, by telephone-tapping and other means, has spied on her, using his covert knowledge to circulate rumours that expose the relationship and so condemn it in the eyes of society. For this marital espionage, this intrusion upon her emotional privacy, she leaves him, though not without a sense of shame and blame: ‘It was her own fault, she thought ... If it hadn’t been for her affair Tsuyama would never have been reduced to spying on her. He could have ended his days as a fine, understanding figure of a husband.’

Woman’s readiness to take the blame is one of the themes of the book’s third narrative, a somewhat longer, more complex work, and perhaps in its ambitions less successful than the other stories. The setting is a TV studio, and the actors are the reportorial staff of a programme called Looking for love, a quite appalling representative of the Japanese appetite for public humiliations. Errant wives are restored to forgiving husbands while a panel of laundered and lacquered wiseacres discuss duties and responsibilities and eventually pack the sinners away to make room for the next nationwide intrusion into someone’s wretchedness. All the men in the studio team have careers to nurse; some are looking for a quick lay; none has any real difficulty in reconciling his conscience to what is going on. The one scrupulous observer of this grievous reduction of a woman’s right to her own soul is another woman, the story’s main character – and she must remain an observer only, bound by contractual obligations in a place that can never become her inviolable space. As people are in the habit of saying, when all the moves have been made and all the choices are wrong, it’s a funny old world.

The most recent of our British heroines was saying just that, and her henchfolk were proving her right, while I read Andrew Davies’s Dirty Faxes, a collection of short stories. This conjunction of blue politics and black fiction made such an impression on me as to bring frequently to mind the King of Brobdingnag’s strictures on the character of the British: ‘I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.’ In fact, this is a somewhat unfair reflection, not only on the Parliamentary Conservative Party but also on the people in Mr Davies’s tales of dirty doings by dirty devils, for these admirably accomplished narratives are not purportedly true bills, not shadow-histories: they are only make-believe, setting up more make-believe – fax them and forget them, or fax them to fix up another fax.

Mr Davies insists on the laws of make-believe, on the fictionality of fiction, on its intertextuality, its self-referential ploys, on all the games and gimmicks taken so seriously by university wits. Davies takes them playfully, and indeed with dazzling skill, but his playfulness somewhat coldly deconstructs those notions to which sentimental old-timers (ARRO NASH) warmly cling – such as the rounded reality of character and the historical plausibility of plot. There are repeated allusions, sometimes in the form of bleak parabolic sketches, to the fax machine and the computer, as metaphors for the creative process as well as for the vulnerable frontier between the goings-on of the mind and the ongoings of the ‘real’ world. From story to story, nothing remains where the reader’s mind puts it. A character in one narrative turns up in another as the writer of the story – with an effect rather like that of the Escher print in which one hand is seen drawing the other. Verbal motifs recur in different lights and contexts. Walk-on extras hang about from tale to tale, like Monty Python characters. In one story a ‘thick-set Chinese man with what looked like a formidable erection’ is a passenger in a hotel lift. In the next story he turns up again, with different people, in another lift, but still thick-set, still nursing his presumable tumescence. And always there is the consciousness of an author who reads and who would like to know that his readers read; who steps out of one story and into the next with side-glances at poems by Robert Frost, or who decorates a laconic recital (called ‘Moving the tables’) with parodic swatches of Hemingwayese.

The verbal sportiveness can become obtrusive, but one accepts it as a token or offshoot of the creative energies of a very gifted storyteller, a master of the arts of concealment and revelation and surprise. There are one or two fine stories in this collection: my favourite, one rather out of the general run of the faxes, is ‘Inappropriate Behaviour’, the tragic recital of one of the two psychically maimed daughters of a molesting father. The tragic note is unusual: what is commoner is a sour comedy, a mockery of banal baseness. This takes a physical turn – we are reminded again and again of the many-odoured ubiquity of the body, the gut and the butt, the cock and its repetitive cockiness – but that scarcely repels. What is more disturbing is the absence of a hopeful gesture, as though all the heroes had left for Japan.

I have no doubt that Mr Davies presents a ruthlessly honest vision of life as we art comically forced to see it in this thin end of an entrepreneurial and pig-ignorant epoch, but amid all the shrewd, deliciously sardonic observations of the half-corrupt and the semi-flawed, I could have cherished a consoling glimpse, just now and then, of someone fairly noble, rather altruistic, getting on for good, or quite possibly innocent. Even fiction calls for its meritorious instances, but these do not turn up in the world of the dirty faxes, where the nearest thing to a good man is usually someone stalled on the way to being a bad man, and where the general habits of the natives invite the censure of the King of Brobdingnag. If this is where we live, it is indeed a funny old island.