Thursday, 25 October 2012

Whistling in the Dark

Were it not for the fact that in 2011 (like every year) I cheated by choosing a series, Shusaku Endo's Silence may well have been chosen as my book of the year - which makes it surprising that I still haven't got around to reading the other of his novels lying on my shelves (Deep River).  Luckily, the sound of another couple of books dropping through my metaphorical letter box recently (the real one's actually outside...), allowed me to renew my relationship with this Japanese writer, as Peter Owen Publishers were kind enough to send me copies of a couple of recently reissued novels.  While I wasn't expecting them to measure up to Silence, I was very keen to see what else Endo was capable of...

When I Whistle (translated by Van C. Gessel) introduces us to Ozu, a typical middle-aged salaryman on a business trip to the Kansai region of Japan.  This return to his childhood home evokes a feeling of nostalgia for the past, and he begins to relive certain pivotal experiences from his high-school days.  Anyone who is immediately reminded of the start of Haruki Murakami's novel Norwegian Wood is in very good company (i.e. me); however, where Murakami's book is a story which lives entirely in the past, Endo's novel is a two-track tale.

One strand follows Ozu down memory lane, describing his life after the arrival of a new student at his school, the enigmatic (and curiously-named) Flatfish.  The arrival of his new friend, an easy-going, smelly, oafish boy from the sticks, is a memorable event in Ozu's youth, not least because it leads to an encounter with a high-school girl, Aiko Azuma, with whom the two boys are doomed to be obsessed.

The other takes place in the present, about 30 years later, and is focused on Ozu's son Eiichi, a doctor at a Tokyo hospital.  Greedy, self-centred, and ruthlessly ambitious, Eiichi blames his underachieving father for his lack of progress in the highly nepotistic hospital environment.  To make up for his social shortcomings, he is prepared to sacrifice any morals he may have, ready to prescribe useless medicine and experiment on dying patients - which is when a certain Aiko Nakagawa is admitted to his hospital...

When I Whistle is an excellent novel, switching between the two stories to examine the differences in Japanese life in the 1940s and the 1970s.  We get to look back at what was and what might have been - before being shown what actually eventuated.  There is an overwhelming sense of a loss of a simpler way of life, one which may have been less comfortable, but perhaps more ethically right.

While Ozu is a decent, helpful soul, his son is, simply put, a nasty piece of work.  To say that he has dubious morals would be flattering him to the extreme.  In his quest to "make it" (whatever that may mean), he is prepared to keep quiet when necessary and betray colleagues when it will advance his career.  In a typical conversation with a patient, Eiichi shows how immune he has become to his way of life:
"Doctor, will I have to have surgery?"
"That's the reason you were hospitalized, isn't it?"
"If the surgery is successful, will I be able to work the way I used to?"
"Of course.  You can play golf and do anything you want."
Eiichi had got used to lying to cancer patients.  Lying to them was part of a doctor's job.
p.56 (Peter Owen, 2012)
Ozu's son is contrasted with another doctor, Tahara, who stands up to his bosses and is promptly sent packing to the provinces.  However, what would have been a fatal blow for Eiichi is actually a Godsend for his colleague.  The time away from Tokyo allows him to appreciate the freedom to work for his patients rather than himself - something Eiichi could never understand.

One of the more interesting aspects for me of this novel was the treatment of the war experience, something I haven't read too much about in Japanese literature.  Of course, it is seen from a very different, Asian perspective: 
 "The war spread to Europe the year Ozu and Flatfish entered their fourth year at the school.  Hostilities were no longer limited to the struggle between Japan and China." p.62
A statement which would probably bewilder those Europeans who assumed that the war started over in Poland!

Endo uses the earlier side of the story to set the scene of the war years: the hysterical patriotism of the early years, the constant drilling students had to go through each week, the going-away parties for new recruits...  Once the tide of the war turns though, we can also see the effects of the lengthy conflict, with food and clothes shortages.  Ironically, in the later half of the story, the children of the survivors seem unappreciative, to say the least, and are sick of hearing the old people talk about the war all the time...

What also comes through again and again in When I Whistle is the corruption of the powerful and the consequences of the Japanese tendency to blindly follow authority.  Officers beat new recruits half to death, and nobody bats an eyelid.  Surgeons prescribe useless drugs because of links to pharmaceutical companies, and the doctors nod and scurry off.  Those same doctors lie through their teeth to cancer patients, and the patients treat them like Gods.  At times it's all a little depressing.

This is a very different book to Silence, and while it never reaches the heights of Endo's masterpiece, it's still a very good novel.  With its setting in a Japan which has moved on from the war, it reminds me a little of Kenzaburo Oe's A Personal Matter, another Japanese novel which doesn't need to emphasise its Japanese-ness (for want of a better word!).  However, it is also a trip down memory lane, allowing the reader to reflect on the price of the progress that has been made.  As Ozu returns to his old neighbourhood, lamenting the disappearance of his old train line and the beautiful pines surrounding his old school, we share his disappointment.  Change is not always for the better...