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Tying up the loose ends of gaijin life

by David Cozy

A ROOM WHERE THE STAR SPANGLED BANNER CANNOT BE HEARD: A Novel in Three Parts, by Levy Hideo. Translated by Christopher D. Scott. Columbia University Press, 2011, 115pp., $19.95 (hardback)

One is certain that more than a few reviewers of Levy Hideo’s “A Room Where The Star Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard” will trot out Samuel Johnson’s oft-quoted line: “A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

That quotation, however, in addition to being egregiously sexist, is not entirely apt. One may be surprised to learn that, as translator Christopher D. Scott informs us, “Levy Hideo is the first white American novelist to write in Japanese,” but one is even more amazed — as one must be with every successful work of art — to see not just that Levy has done it, but that he has done it very well indeed.

This is doubly surprising because the tired template he’s taken for his book — young American male finding himself in Japan — has been done and done again. Levy, however, makes it new. His protagonist does not, as most of these fish-out-of-water expats do, experience Japan as a means of getting in touch with his inner-American, but rather finds in Japan a place where he can distance himself from the country where President John F. Kennedy has been murdered and that is sinking deeper into the morass of Vietnam.

Levy is not the first writer to have his novels translated from the foreign language in which they are written back into his native language: Samuel Beckett and Joseph Conrad spring to mind. As with those masters, elements of Levy’s text that exist above the word or sentence level do a great deal to make it the compelling work that it is.

At the level of structure, for example, Levy does not shackle himself to a first-this-happened-then-that-happened linear narrative. Instead, he divides his novel into three parts. The first deals mostly with the present (“late autumn 1967″), and the events leading up to the protagonist, Ben Isaac, running away from his home at the American Consulate in Yokohama, where his father is the consul. In the second, much of which precedes the first in time, Ben, as a diplomat’s son, moves with his parents around Asia until they divorce and Ben goes to live with his mother in a Virginia suburb. It is not just, we begin to see in this section, the sociopolitical turmoil of the times, but also the usual family disasters — cold and unfaithful father, devastated and unstable mother — that motivate the 17-year-old boy to flee his home and homeland.

The third section returns us to Japan where Ben, in accord with an odd custody agreement, has come from Virginia to spend a year with his father in Yokohama, and is there presented with the choice between his father’s extraterritorial American world, and the Japanese world outside the consulate’s gates. We watch the American boy move across the border and enter the Japan that fascinates him.

The skill with which Levy ties these three sections together, and also with which, within each of the sections, he moves between Ben’s memories and his present, makes it clear that, though this was Levy’s first novel, he already had a firm grasp of the novelist’s art. He also had the novelist’s eye for the striking scenes the world throws up, particularly those that a border-crosser such as Ben, would notice.

Moving on the fringes of the Kabukicho demimonde, for example, Ben sees, in a coffee shop, “a prematurely balding European man expounding on Buddhist enlightenment (‘Satori, satori’) to a circle of Japanese students.” He hears, from Yamashita Park, “people laughing in Japanese.”

Levy, who has himself embraced life in Japan and, more significantly, in Japanese, does not romanticize the country by pretending that its denizens typically welcome foreigners with open arms. Rather, when Ben begins work as the only foreign waiter at the Kabukicho equivalent of an all-night diner, he is, at best, an object of his coworkers’ curiosity, but just as often an object of their scorn. Indeed it becomes clear by novel’s end that, as much as he would like to turn Japanese, and as skilled as he may become in the language, the alienation he knew as an American will remain with him in Japan.

In the novel’s final paragraph, Ben approaches a reflection of his face, and it is not, of course, a Japanese one: “The reflection of the pale white gaijin face in the glass door grew bigger and bigger.” Earlier in the novel Ben had seen his white gaijin face reflected in a cracked washstand mirror. The mirror was stationary; the image could not be rejected. This time, however, “Ben pushed the face aside and walked out.”

There the novel ends, more satisfying for the loose end that Levy has left us, the life that Ben will make in Japan.