Voices | FOREIGN AGENDA

Pick up a secondhand book in Japan and unearth a mystery

by Mark Gottlieb

Contributing Writer

Perhaps the greatest pleasure to be derived from shopping at secondhand book stores in Japan comes from never knowing what you will find. I refer not to the books themselves, mind you, but to what turns up between their pages.

More often than not you will discover what the Cajuns of Bayou Country call a “lagniappe” — a little something extra. And, almost invariably, that free bonus will present you with a tale more intriguing than any the book itself might contain.

It is a phenomenon that in my experience seldom occurs in other counties. For reasons unknown, secondhand book archaeology seems to be a distinctly Japanese field — one that, while fascinating, is also as frustrating as hell.

Last year in Tokyo, for example, I purchased a paperback published in New Delhi of an Indian author’s English-language novel. Inside, I found that shortly after the book’s publication — on the morning of July 15, 2012, to be precise — its original owner was thumbing through it while eating breakfast in a restaurant in Colaba, the southernmost district of Mumbai.

I know this because in the book was a restaurant receipt for an omelet and cafe latte, the total cost of which was 286 rupees. I know that the bill was paid at 10:26 a.m., I know which Indian bank issued the credit card used in the transaction, and I even know that the server was named “Raymond.”

Interesting. But that was merely Owner No. 1. What of Owner No. 2?

Throughout the book I also found his or her tracks — meticulous handwritten notes in Japanese that were translations of difficult English words that appear in the text. Yet oddly, while the reader/translator had to look up Japanese equivalents of “wharf” and “bluster,” for example, he or she required no help with words like “accrete” or “languor” — hardly terms in common usage.

How is that possible? And why, then, did Owner No. 2 suddenly stop reading? Because the last translation — ironically, the characters for the word “tenacity” — appears on page 82, less than a third of the way through.

What happened to stop the reader’s progress? And how did this little volume wend its way from a coffee shop in Mumbai to a book store in Shibuya?

It’s an itch I can’t scratch.

Now yet another secondhand book has presented me with a new set of puzzles.

The volume in question — again an English-language paperback, this one published in Britain in 1983 — was purchased in Fukuoka not long ago for ¥108. It is an obscure novel, written in 1933, but the work itself is of only tangential interest here. Because wedged firmly between pages 126 and 127 there was a postcard — old, abandoned and long forgotten.

The card is postmarked July 16, 1987, which is 25 years less a day before my earlier anonymous fellow reader was breakfasting in Colaba. It is addressed in romaji to a Japanese individual living in the Ropponmatsu area of Fukuoka. The sender is someone named “Christian,” and he wrote the card in what seems to be his native tongue: French.

There are five postage stamps affixed to the card, in denominations ranging from 5 to 120 francs — Malian francs, to be exact. The card was mailed from Mali’s capital, a city with a name that should by rights include an exclamation mark in the middle: Bamako.

In his brief message, Christian states that he has made a “very interesting voyage to the country of the Dogon” — a distinct ethnic group that lives on Mali’s central plateau. He goes on to note that the weather is “very hot and dry” (not surprising, given the locale), but he ends with a decidedly enigmatic conclusion.

“See you soon,” he writes. “I send all three of you big hugs.” Then, after his signature, he adds the phrase “Mina ni Yoroshiku!” (“Kind regards to you all”) in romaji and — as if he needed to further identify himself — in parentheses he includes the word “Papa.”

I’m stumped. Was Christian a Malian himself or was he from France? Did he live in Fukuoka, or was he just writing to someone he knew there? Who are “all three of you” and the “everyone” of “Mina ni Yoroshiku”? And why did he refer to himself as “Papa” almost as an afterthought? Finally, how did the paperback find its way to Fukuoka in the first place, and what ultimately happened to the parties involved in this 30-year-old drama?

These are questions without answers. Like most excursions into secondhand book archaeology, they may never be understood, explained or laid to rest. Instead, they will likely remain mysteries, their resolution always just out of reach — taunting me for the rest of my life.

And, now, for the rest of your life as well.

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