Non-Japanese have written great books about Japan. Almost all of these masterpieces are nonfiction: essays, memoirs, monographs, histories, travel books. One might place, for example, Alan Booth’s “The Roads to Sata,” Donald Richie’s “Ozu,” Edward Seidensticker’s “Genji Days,” and Nicolas Bouvier’s “The Japanese Chronicles” among those exalted works.
However, trying to think of great novels about Japan by non-Japanese, things become more difficult, and as for great novels by non-Japanese about Tokyo, well, forget it.
Stone bridge press, Fiction.
That’s not to say, however, that non-Japanese writers haven’t made some noble attempts to capture the Japanese capital in fiction. There is David Mitchell’s “number9dream,” for example, and David Peace’s “Tokyo Year Zero” and “Occupied City,” the first two volumes of an as yet uncompleted trilogy.
Even if these books may not quite achieve greatness, they remain admirable in large part because neither author wrote the easy book — the one we’ve read too many times, a first-this-happened-then-that-happened account of a foreign visitor washing up in Japan and being culturally shocked on the way to finding, or in the more “radical” of these works, losing themselves. Rather, both Mitchell and Peace understand that conventional realism and conventional prose are simply incapable of conveying the interlocking chaos and order of Tokyo.
Arturo Silva, the author of “Tokio Whip,” is currently teaching film history and theory in Vienna, but he spent much of the 1980s and ’90s in Tokyo, “tramping, all over the place, doing my research,” as he says, “walking, talking, reading, exploring, meeting people, looking everywhere, dreaming the city,” so he understands this too. Thus, in “Tokio Whip,” his first novel — 18 years in the making — rather than simply recounting some hapless expat’s experiences, he puts the novel through its paces: he plays games with structure and language, and in so doing he gives us perhaps the first Tokyo novel not by a Japanese that satisfies both in its vision of the Japanese capital and in its vision of what a novel can be.
Form is at the fore in “Tokio Whip,” but one hastens to add that there’s a story here, too, a love story even, with a happy ending. Silva uses the account of a couple — Roberta, who flees Europe for Tokyo; Lang who comes to Tokyo to retrieve her — and their group of artistic, intellectual friends to keep us moving as we wander through the capital.
The love story, however, and all that spins off from it, is presented in fragments, conversations, letters, pastiches and more, and includes what Silva calls “other pieces of writing, poems and such.” He justifies the inclusion of these “other pieces” by asking, “Doesn’t any city — and especially Tokyo — have elements that are unexpected, out of place, don’t fit in (but do)?”
“Tokio Whip” we come to see, is part of the lineage of great modernist novels about cities. Silva mentions James Joyce’s renderings of Dublin as part of the tradition to which his novel belongs, and in “Tokio Whip,” as with “Ulysses,” we have a certain surface incoherence obscuring an underlying coherence. Readers will find themselves asking, “How does this fragment connect with that?” and “Who, in this conversation, is talking with whom?”
“The reader never knows quite exactly what is going on,” Silva explains, “but the writing and its variety (the mix, the whip) charms him or her to continue.”
OK, that’s the author talking about his own work, but he’s not wrong about the charm, and of course one of the charming things about novels like this is that as you read, you learn, as it were, the language. The pieces of the puzzle do slide into place, the fragments begin to cohere, and although the portrait may not be crystal clear at the novel’s end, the uncertainties that remain are essential to a true picture of life — and certainly of a city as complex as Tokyo.
Those who wish to fully understand the rigor with which Silva has constructed his novel will want to visit “Tokio Whip: Warp ‘n’ Woof,” the appendix to the novel, available at the publisher’s website, but even those who are content to read the novel without a complete understanding of its organizing principles — and such understanding is in no way necessary — will enjoy it. The success of “Tokio Whip” rests not only on its formal integrity, but also on the pleasure its constituent pieces give.
We eavesdrop, for example, on conversations like this one, which seems lifted from a screwball comedy:
“Two questions. One. Thai food tomorrow night in Shinjuku?”
“Why not the new place in Jimbocho?”
“Two. Will you love me tomorrow?”
“Yes, of course. But why not the new place in Jimbocho?”
“That’s all I wanted to know.”
“We’re agreed then. The new place in Jimbocho.”
We enter Tokyo interiors, described with deadly accuracy: “A ‘Western’ room (chairs) and a ‘Japanese’ room (tatami), appliances and comic books piled high, some cheap gee-gaws here and there (Japanese courtesan in glass box; Rococo ceramic copy, young woman at piano, lapdog, suitor).”
We revel in the beauty of lyricism unmarred by irony, a theme-and-variations, for example, on the Tokyo sky: “A gray sky with the occasional white or black rubbings, chalk. A dark gray sky or a light gray sky, with scoops of foam, seed, cream.”
We get, in the end, the sense that we haven’t just read about Tokyo, but lived it, and that the novel in our hands is as inexhaustible as the city. We turn back to the first page, and begin the city again.