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Laid-back celebration of the empty and ordinary

by Steve Finbow

PLAINSONG, by Kazushi Hosaka, translated by Paul Warham, Dalkey Archive Press, 2011, 176 pp., $18 (paper)

After being dumped by his girlfriend and moving to a new apartment, the anonymous anti-hero of this plaintive novel finds himself drawn to the life of a recluse, shunning drinking friends, and spending his time reading or doing exercises at home alone.

Obsessed with cats and horse racing, and slowly taking refuge on the fringes of boredom and melancholy, he fills his days trying to lure a stray kitten into his apartment or going to the racetrack with acquaintances interested only in indifference and conspiracy theories. Women are only of use to these men if they accompany them to the track — and only if they happen to be good-luck charms — or fulfil some kind of role as muses for erotic ennui. More interesting are the cats that roam Tokyo, and more so a specific orange tabby that lives in an alley near the man’s apartment in Nakamurabashi.

Into the man’s super-ordinary life drift various people: Yumiko — a cat-loving friend, Akira — a self-schooled artist, and Shimada — a would-be avant-garde filmmaker, all of whom move through a vague world where the ordinariness of reality becomes disconcertingly dreamlike. Unable to communicate in any real sense with the people around him, the nameless man attempts to understand the mystery of cats and the mind of the equally feline-crazy Yoko — a girl Akira brings to the apartment. If all this sounds Haruki Murakami-lite, it isn’t. Kazushi Hosaka’s novel reads more like Douglas Coupland as he injects dry humour into the laid-back narrative with dialogues on the absurdity of racehorse names and the possibility of super-mutant thoroughbreds in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster.

In a neat metaphor for the novel, Akira, Yoko, and the nameless man visit Toshimaen amusement park. They climb over a wall in order not to pay the entrance fee, but find the park closed and empty, the excitement and noise a distant memory or a future experience, a background hum of activity to the calm emptiness of the characters’ lives. However much the banality of existence is embraced and experienced, the smallest events become miniature battles against inevitability, against the tug of death.

The novel is not so much a sexual and social farce but a gentle analysis of human interaction as it examines the vagueness and vagaries of existence. Even when the violence of ritual is explained to the anonymous man — as in the piercing of flesh in religious ceremonies in Bali — he only half listens, half understands, more interested in the different markings on the orange and white cats he and Yoko name Mew and Miao.

The narrative shifts somewhat when we learn of a man who studies the Kabbalah in order to master the occult, but to do so he must sacrifice the thing he cherishes the most. This is juxtaposed with a rant about the fecklessness of Japanese youth and the inadequacies of the Japanese horse racing system. Both stories becoming minor satirical versions of the novel itself. Gonta — another filmmaker — moves into the apartment and the inhabitants argue about going to the beach, sit in silence, or discuss cats. Gonta films their inaction. Here, the author foregrounds the experience of reading “Plainsong” by asking, “What makes a story interesting?” It is almost as if we are watching a film at the same time as we are appearing in it.

First published in Japan in 1990 as “Purensongo”, “Plainsong” — with its monophonic voice — reminds this reviewer more of the works of Jean-Philippe Toussaint than those of any contemporary Japanese novelist — and that is praise indeed. Never heavy in its discussion of art, friendship, and work — “Plainsong” reads like a Jean-Luc Godard movie scripted by Samuel Beckett with added jokes by Richard Brautigan and Charles Bukowski.

A novel that explains to us that we do not always remember the lives we lead — nor are they always exciting — as it gently insists that doing nothing in particular is its own kind of story.