Getting younger, getting older


I HAVEN’T DREAMED OF FLYING FOR A WHILE by Taichi Yamada, translated by David James Karashima. London: Faber & Faber, 2008, 195 pp., £10.99 (paper).

He is in bed with her. “Take my nipple in your mouth,” she says. “Just like nobody can console a person who is getting old — a person who is getting closer and closer to death — nobody can console me as I get younger and disappear. It’s not your fault. This nipple next.”

Although a 67-year-old grandmother, she appears to be a beautiful teenager, getting younger every time he meets her. “I pulled the cover over her naked shoulder and felt like a father fixing the blankets of his child — even though I, only a moment before, had been myself inside her. I wondered what would happen.” Will she next be a child? And the time after that — will she even have been born?”

In this beautifully conceived metaphysical fantasy Taichi Yamada dramatizes a wayward liebestod, a backward love affair that links with death in both directions. In so doing he returns to a favored theme, the persistence of memory, one which so distinguished his most popular book.

This was the 1987 “Ijintachi to no Natsu,” translated in 2005 as “Strangers.” In it a man meets some people who not only resemble his dead parents but are his dead parents, though they are now younger than he is — they are as he knew them in his childhood.

Memory maintains, but it also kills. As the images of his mother and father grow fainter, he feels that they are breathing death into him. He turns sallow, then cadaverous and realizes “the return of the dead fundamentally undermines the order of the living.”

Both Yamada’s novels could be read as allegories where the here and now is questioned in face of the old and then. The old might have been better but at the same time it enfeebles because it isn’t now — and “now” is all that counts because it is the only reality.

This is a lesson also learned by the protagonist of “I Haven’t Dreamed of Flying for a While (Tobu Yume o Shibaraku Minai),” 1989. The woman is old (hospitalized) when he first meets her and at every further encounter she becomes younger. Is he responsible for this strange progression?

The man who found his parents in the 1987 novel was guilty. “I had to assume that the moment I departed, my parents would cease moving, grow colorless, and be robbed of the breath of life.” Yet at the same time their presence was poisoning him. In the 1989 novel the situation is similar. When with him the woman moves backward to her birth. At the same time he moves toward his death. So is it his fault?

The question is never asked this directly, nor are the mysteries ever explained. but the idea vibrates throughout these pages. She says that she feels like a ghost and in a way she has become one, moving backward rather than forward in time. So what does he feel like?

Yamada knows a lot about make-believe worlds and their sway over the “real” one. He is a well known film scenarist, having worked with Keisuke Kinoshita, Masahiro Shinoda, and other directors, most memorably Yoji Yamada in his 1986 “Final Take (Kinema no Tenchi).” He also adapted his “Strangers” for Nobuhiko Obayashi in “The Discarnates” (1988). As the narrator of this film put it: “Like in the studio, no matter how normal and real everything appeared on the set, I had to assume I was somewhere a long way from reality.”

“I Haven’t Dreamed of Flying for a While” is another result of this realization — a beautiful and troubling vision of the other side of life, here sensitively translated by David James Karashima. The disturbing connection between love and death leads like a path directly to over there.