Monday, 22 September 2014

'Ich nannte ihn Krawatte' ('I Called Him Necktie') by Milena Michiko Flašar

Hot on the heels of my recent read of Jenny Erpenbeck's Aller Tage Abend (The End of Days) comes another piece of contemporary German-language literature, one which has a couple of similarities to Erpenbeck's novel.  For one thing, it's another book by a woman in translation (which I'm sure will please Biblibio!).  The other one is perhaps more relevant - once again, it's a book which you'll be able to check out in English for yourself very soon...

Milena Michiko Flašar's Ich nannte ihn Krawatte (I Called Him Necktie, out now from New Vessel Press) is the story of Hiro Taguchi, a young Japanese man who has spent the past two years in self-imposed exile inside his bedroom.  He belongs to the group of Japanese society called Hikikomori, people who, unable to cope with the stress of the outside world, decide to stay in their rooms instead.

At the start of the book, Hiro takes his first, faltering steps back into the real world, deciding that a walk in the park might do him good.  As he sits on a bench in the park, watching the rest of the world go by (being very careful not to interact with any of the passers-by), he notices a man on the bench opposite his, another person in no hurry to leave his comfortable seat.  As the days go by, the two men gradually get to know each other, nodding to each other when arriving and leaving, until one day the older man crosses the gravel path dividing them, sitting down next to Hiro and starting a conversation - which is when Hiro realises that the Hikikomori aren't the only ones suffering under the weight of Japanese society...

Ich nannte ihn Krawatte is a wonderful little book which uses an unlikely relationship between two different men to tell the story of modern Japanese society.  The first is a high-school drop-out; the second, a salaryman who has lost his job - the reader is given an insight into the stresses of Japanese daily life through the eyes of the exhausted corporate hero, and a young man who can't bear to enter that world.  As the two get closer and begin to tell stories about their lives, explaining what events brought them to their bench in the open air, Hiro's eyes are opened, and he begins to realise that his desire to hide away from the rest of the world is far from unique.

Right from the start, we're aware that we're looking back on a sad story, with the first page informing the reader that the events Hiro is to relate already belong to the past:
"Ich nannte ihn Krawatte.  Der Name gefiel ihm.  Er brachte ihn zum Lachen.  Rotgraue Streifen an seiner Brust.  So will ich ihn in Erinnerung behalten."
p.7 (Verlag Klaus Wagenbach, 2012)

"I called him necktie.  The name pleased him.  It made him laugh.  Red-and-grey stripes across his chest.  That's how I want to remember him" *** (my translation)
The relationship that slowly progresses, then, is one we already know is destined to end, and the stories the two men tell contain many others which have failed to go the distance. 

Many of these stories involve people who are different, a state of affairs which can have consequences in a society which prides itself on being homogeneous.  Whether it's a student who hides his ability in spoken English, or the poet who has no desire to join the rat race, the nail that sticks up, as the Japanese proverb goes, will be hammered down - and that hammering can be just as brutal as the metaphor would suggest.  What evolves from the stories is a picture of a society where the different are stigmatised, and Hiro's withdrawal from the world is partly because he is haunted by his own passivity in the face of injustice.

This leads to a fear of relationships, a reluctance to get to close to anyone who might be able to damage him emotionally at a later date:
"Ich wollte niemandem begegnen.  Jemandem zu begegnen bedeutet, sich zu verwickeln.  Es wird ein unsichtbarer Faden geknüpft." (p.8)

"I didn't want to meet anyone.  Meeting people means getting involved.  An invisible thread is bound." ***
At the height of his issues, even the thought of touching others, or being touched by their hair, for example, brings him out in a cold sweat.  All of which, surprisingly, reminds him of own, rather distant, father...

The longer the story goes on, the more important Hiro's father becomes, as we come to sense that Tetsu, the office drone who has been thrown out of the hive, is the young man's key to understanding his parents.  In fact, he serves as a representative, the human face even, of the vast army of salarymen keeping the country afloat:
"Seine gebügelte Gestalt war die tausender anderer, die tagein und tagaus die Straßen füllen.  Sie strömen aus dem Bauch der stadt und verschwinden in hohen Gebäuden, in deren Fenstern der himmel in einzelne Teile zerbricht." (p.13)

"His washed-out figure was that of thousands of others who, day in and day out, fill the streets.  They stream out of the belly of the city and disappear into high buildings, in whose windows the sky shatters into scattered pieces." ***
The flip-side of this well-oiled machine is the relentless pressure of society, one which decrees that you must do this - or else.  Testsu, who was an unquestioning part of the machine for decades, is now old, used up (he can't even keep up with the corporate drinking culture) and must be removed from the machine like a worn-out part...

Another important theme of the book is the importance of face.  Ironically, while both Hiro and Tetsu are transgressing against cultural norms, they are allowed to remove themselves from society because others are ashamed to confront them for fear of what the neighbours might think:
"Mein Glück ist es, dass man mich bis heute in Ruhe gelassen hat.  Denn es gibt auch solche, die man herausgelockt hat.  Man verspricht ihnen eine Wiedereingliederung.  Genesung auch.  Arbeit.  Erfolg.  Mit diesen dünnen Versprechen auf den Lippen werden sie Schritt für Schritt zurück in die Gesellschaft, jenes große Gemeinsame, geführt.  Man gewöhnt sie daran, ihr gefällig zu sein.  Man harmonisiert sie.  Ich aber habe Glück.  Man rechnet nicht mit mir." (p.44)

"It is my good fortune that I've been left in peace thus far.  For there are those who have been tempted out.  They are promised a reintegration.  Recovery too.  Work.  Success.  With these hollow promises on the lips, they are led, step by step, back into society, this great commonality.  They are conditioned to become compliant to it.  They are harmonised.  I, however, am lucky.  Noone is counting on me." ***
As long as everyone pretends everything is OK, then everything is OK, and this leads to a distinct (damaging) lack of communication.  Tetsu finds himself unable to reveal the truth to his wife, and Hiro hides away from parents and friends, shutting the real reasons for his mental collapse deep inside.  The writer shows that in a society which favours repressing emotions there's a need for people to speak up and let their loved ones know what's going on.

Ich nannte ihn Krawatte is written in a fairly sparse style with a predominance of short sentences, a style I'm tempted to call Japano-Deutsch, and the already short story is divided into more than a hundred brief sections, making it easy to pick up and put down (although I raced through it for the most part).  Flašar's mother is Japanese, and that will probably help with the book's authenticity and reception; many readers can (quite rightly) be suspicious of western authors attempting to write about Asian culture, but this definitely feels right.  The story is also liberally sprinkled with Japanese expressions, explained in a glossary at the end of the book - I wonder if the English version will have quite as many...

...which brings me back to where we started, New Vessel Press' English translation, published as I Called Him Necktie (translated by Sheila Dickie).  The title might sound a little clumsy in English, but it's actually quite apt.  You see, while English speakers would probably just say 'tie', the Japanese word for this item of clothing is, funnily enough, 'necktie' (or a close approximation, anyway!).  The book's out now, and I'd definitely recommend it.  It's a great story and a wonderful depiction of how modern life can sometimes leave people behind - and while it is fairly specific to Japan, the truth is that it makes for uncomfortable reading for the rest of us as well.  In an increasingly capitalist world, those of us who can't keep up with the pace are just as at risk of being left behind as poor Hiro and Tetsu...