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Case of the mysterious mister

by David Burleigh

WHO IS MR SATOSHI?, by Jonathan Lee. William Heinemann, 2010, 295 pp., £12.99 (hardcover)

Rob Fossick, a 41-year-old photographer, is drinking a glass of butterscotch schnapps when he witnesses the death of his mother in a retirement home, and is then left to sort out her effects.

The moment of her collapse stands out in his memory because he thinks it was “the last time I really had any options.”

During the funeral, Rob hides behind a tree smoking until nearly everyone else has gone away. But one friend of his mother’s lingers, an elderly resident of the home called Freddie, and together with this stately old woman, Rob starts looking through his mother’s things. Among them is a box containing a small package with a Tokyo address, intended for a “Mr. Satoshi,” and yet the person in question is not, Freddie claims, a Japanese.

There are also some letters. The letters, written in Tokyo in the immediate aftermath of World War II, are from an Englishman whom Rob’s mother knew in her younger days. With this small amount of illumination on the matter, Rob begins his investigation. A widower and recluse, given to panic attacks and substance abuse, he is at a crisis in his career: “Somehow I had stopped taking photographs.”

His agent reassures him: “The future is Japan.” So he sets off on a journey to deliver the package to its putative owner.

A chance meeting with an extraordinarily helpful young Japanese woman, who has “fluorescent pink hair” and who becomes Rob’s guide to Tokyo, opens the way forward. Research in a library produces further clues, and deepens the perplexity of his gradually forming notion of who, and where, “Mr. Satoshi” might actually be.

By this time, we know that he had come to Japan as a sort of anthropologist in the postwar Occupation, and is no longer at the address written on the package. One of the delights of this novel is the descriptive flourishes of its prose: “She was standing under a trembling glitter ball in which the pink of her hair fragmented into a tropical palette, each shade ordered and clarified by the next.”

Even musty old books seem vital: “Each released a different smell, the scent of a particular time or place, a dusty perfume that endured in the library’s unique weather. Like good photographs, books can preserve something of the fleeting and unrepeatable moment in which they were created.”

Besides its eccentric characters, this one also contains some amusing dialogue, a quick overview of the special language used in sushi shops, and several entertaining little dogs. But at its heart is a slowly unfolding mystery, linked to Rob’s mother and her youthful connection to “Mr Satoshi,” who remains elusive more than halfway through the story: “He was still a blank, hands without a face, an absence rather a presence.” Yet some disturbing facts appear.

Though photographs turn out to be important too, the key information is contained in letters which, though elegantly written, do not strike quite the right note for the period when they are meant to have been composed.

Nevertheless, the truth, when it emerges, is very moving, and the central tragedy not “visceral horrors,” but “just a quiet, invisible sadness.” Rob, however, has experienced some “visceral horrors” of his own. And there is a further layer of revelation at the close of the story, when all the past events are finally recounted.

It would be unfair to say exactly what the revelations are, but in the manner of the telling, I was reminded now and then of Kazuo Ishiguro, except that Jonathan Lee has a sense of humor. The name of the Showa Emperor is oddly misspelled as “Hiroto,” but otherwise the local context seems well caught. The location is indicated on the cover by a red blob, like a large tomato.

Whether the author will return to Japan in his next book is impossible to know, but this is certainly an elegant and promising first novel.