A hikikomori and a sarariman meet by chance in a park. Taguchi Hiro is the twenty year-old shut-in who has not left his home for two years. This day in the park is his first venture into the outside world for a very long time. Ohara Tetsu is the middle-aged salaryman who has been pushed out of his job. He had become more and more bored, couldn’t keep up with the drinking culture, made mistakes and fell asleep at his desk.
This book was originally written in German by Milena Michiko Flašar and won the 2012 Austrian Alpha Literature Prize. Although the writer lives in Vienna and has an Austrian father, her mother is Japanese and a Japanese sensibility permeates the book. The world the protagonists inhabit, alongside the busy world of city commuters, has the same desolate quality of the suburban back streets in Murakami’s first novel The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. They are outside the stream of normal life, in their bubble of sadness.
The writing is exquisite in its clarity and simplicity. Sometimes one word sentences, ‘What?’ sentences without verbs, ‘With eyes brimming.’, sentences reminiscent of Sei Shonagan, ‘After the rain the light is always at its clearest’ and sometimes a flood of words as the young man begins to trust.
‘The words flooded out of me. I was a dry riverbed where rain falls after years of drought. The ground is quickly soaked and then there is no stopping. The water rises and rises, way over the banks, pulls down trees and bushes, laps over the land. I felt a release with every word I spoke.’
The young man is sensitive to the sufferings of others but is not strong enough to save them from the bullies. He runs from Kumamoto as he lies on the street covered in blood, victim of a traffic accident. Kumamoto’s hand ‘white and thin’ seems to beg for his help, but Taguchi flees the scene. After this he stays in bed. We gradually learn that this guilt is laid upon a deeper guilt at his abandonment of Yukiko, a schoolmate he has deeply loved but is not strong enough to champion. She comes from poor despised parents, she smells, but is bright and sensitive. She comes to his high school and looks to him initially for help but he fails her.
These events, painful in their intensity, emerge little by little. Ohara has his own story of failure and desertion. He cannot tell his wife he has lost his job and spends each working day in the park. And he has failed her in other ways.
This little novel, only 128 pages, is both gripping and intensely sad. But somehow, through their short friendship, life is changed for these outsiders. And what Taguchi has learned is this,
‘Simplicity. To simply be there. Simply keep going. The longer I keep going the easier it was to see how beautiful, simply beautiful, it is to be here.’
An exquisite book, another wonderful publication from New Vessel Press. Highly recommended.