Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Dreams in a Cold Climate

A while back, when Peter Owen Publishers offered to send me a couple of Shusaku Endo novels to review, they also asked if I would be interested in a third Japanese book by a different writer, one on the topic of mountain climbing.  I was happy to have a look, so I accepted, and the book duly appeared a few weeks later.  However, it appears that I wasn't paying attention during the e-mail exchange as what I thought was a work of non-fiction was actually a novel - which was even better :)

Wahei Tatematsu's Frozen Dreams (translated by Philip Gabriel) is based on a true story but is very much a work of fiction.  It takes place in the mountains of the northernmost of Japan's four main islands, Hokkaido, and concerns a mountaineering expedition which goes horribly wrong.  Noboru, a final-year university student, is leading a six-strong team on an ascent of one the island's highest peaks.  After a few days of hard toil in sub-zero temperatures, the group digs out a snow cave to spend the night in, before recommencing their assault on the mountain the next day.  Unfortunately though, the mountain has other ideas - the assault (in the form of an avalanche) is on the climbers instead.

When Noboru wakes up, he finds himself trapped, tired and frozen in a little pocket of air.  Unable to move, he alternates between sweet dreams and painful consciousness - and in his dreams, he sees a future in which the avalanche is just a distant memory.  Having come close to Yuko, the only woman in the group, the delirious Noboru's imagination runs away with him, and he envisions a future in which he and Yuko return to the mountain, this time under a blazing sun.  Whether it will ever come true or not remains to be seen...

Frozen Dreams is an excellent glimpse into a world the majority of us will never see, the beauty and danger of mountains in the snow.  The great strength of the book is the insight into Noboru's world, a world I am more than happy to experience through Tatematsu's descriptive prose.  The writer takes us into the climbers' world, showing us how they clear the snow, dig out a snow cave, and cook in spartan conditions.  As Noboru and his group walk in the glistening snow, breathing in the crisp, clean air and gazing out over the Hokkaido landscape, it almost makes you envious.  Almost.

The climbers are well aware of the dangers they face, and in a way, this is part of the thrill.  As Noboru muses:
"But what point would there be to a climb without risk?  Even if you don't seek out danger, trying to avoid it entirely would make climbing impossible.  The more he pursued these thoughts, the more he arrived at one question: Why did one climb mountains?  It was a question nobody could answer."
p.126 (Peter Owen Publishers, 2012)
Part of the enjoyment of tackling the peaks in treacherous conditions is the knowledge that it is a gamble.  There is a lot to gain from the risk, but so much you could lose.

Naturally, Noboru's opinions are slightly altered by his experiences in the snow cave.  His dreams of a happy, married future are a far cry from his earlier feelings.
"Happiness meant monotony.  The same days one after another, time peacefully passing by, disappearing as soon as it passed.  Noboru knew he was living an ordinary life now and was happy." p.137
Unfortunately, this ordinary, happy life is all in his head...

While there's a lot to like about Frozen Dreams, it does have some drawbacks.  Despite the high profile of the translator, Murakami-renderer Philip Gabriel, there were some parts of the book which didn't impress me much.  The description of the Hokkaido landscape was beautiful, but some of the more mundane prose felt a little clunky (to use a technical term!).

I'd also have to say that the inclusion of Yuko in the group, and the resultant sexual tension with another of the climbers, seems a little forced and unnecessary.  In Noboru's series of dreams, his hopes become fantasy, culminating in some short, but slightly over-detailed, sex scenes which are completely out of place.  It's as if the writer felt a need to add another dimension to the story, one which detracts a little from Noboru's struggle for survival.

Away from bedroom matters though, it's an enjoyable read, contrasting descriptive passages of natural beauty with pages spent with Noboru in his claustrophobic bubble.  As his energy slowly dwindles (along with the batteries in his head-lamp), he is forced to face up to the worst - he (and his companions) might not make it back down the mountain alive.  And this is the motto of the story, repeated several times in its pages:
"Whenever you climb a mountain, you have to come back safe and sound.  Otherwise it's too sad for those you leave behind." p128