The five stories that constitute Hans Brinckmann’s “The Tomb in the Kyoto Hills” are all competent. The prose seldom obtrudes on the reader’s consciousness; the characters are sometimes slightly implausible, but never enough to be awful. The focus on men at loose ends, and the manner in which women exist in some of the stories primarily as vehicles to aid men in their quest for whatever it is they’re questing for, is tiresome, but not unusual. If the author displayed a sensibility that was profound or a vision of life that was startling and fresh, his stories might transcend mere competence, but unfortunately, though Brinckmann is neither insensitive nor dim, one sees little evidence in these stories of superlative sensibility or insight.
Competence, however, is no small thing, and Brinckmann does manage to give us a glimpse into how a person with his somewhat unusual background — he’s a retired banker who has spent much of his life in Japan — might think. What we see is not always pretty.
The first story in the collection, “A Leap into the Light,” is the most interesting because of the creepiness of the main characters, a quality Brinckmann may not have intended. A European man living in Kansai in the 1960s finds that an acquaintance, Gerard Winters, has, in essence, purchased a young Japanese girl, and employs her as a sort of concubine. The proud buyer of this now 17- or 18-year-old woman assures the narrator that this is OK because he didn’t let his then pre-pubescent purchase act on the desire she felt for him. “Yes, I was very strict,” he says. “She looked pretty grown-up but she was under-age, after all. In Japan girls must be thirteen to … “
When Winters informs his acquaintance that he is dying and would like to pass the girl on to him, the narrator, because he believes in “innen, the existence of fated connections,” and doesn’t much care for “Western women’s lib advocates,” quickly accepts the offer, making only one stipulation: that the girl be told at some point about what they have arranged for her. The past may be another country, but creeps, it seems, have always been creeps.
The assumptions about women in the long title story, “A Tomb in the Kyoto Hills” are jarring in much the same way. Those who’ve read or seen “Eat, Pray, Love” will recognize the template: privileged first-worlder suffers a midlife crisis and chucks it all to head off to Asia in search of a more authentic existence. Men who’ve attempted Elizabeth Gilbert’s book — if there are any — may find Brinckmann’s version more congenial, because it’s a guy who’s doing the chucking. Like the girl in “A Leap Into the Light,” the seeker’s wife lives to serve her man, so she tags along with him to Kyoto, and devotes herself to facilitating his quest. How could she do otherwise when she apparently believes, with her husband, in “the obligation every man has to himself — to find his own truth?” As a woman, of course, her only obligation is to stand by her man — except, of course, when the sensitive guy wants to be alone.
That Brinckmann manages, in these stories and the remaining three, to clearly convey his worldview is evidence of his competence. That he fails to interrogate some of the more questionable aspects of that worldview is what assures that the stories are seldom more than competent.