Herewith an excerpt from Plainsong, a novel by Kazushi Hosaka, translated from the Japanese by Paul Warham and published earlier this year by Dalkey Archive Press. Plainsong was heralded by the Japan Times as a “laid-back celebration of the empty and the ordinary” that “reads like a Jean-Luc Godard movie scripted by Samuel Beckett with added jokes by Richard Brautigan and Charles Bukowski.” NC’s reviewer, Brianna Berbenuik, writes: “Hosaka’s characters are like ghosts; they are never quite fully fleshed out and remain incomplete – an eerie transience, in a sense trapped in the plight of their generation. None of the characters is particularly rebellious, though perhaps the more eccentric ones, like the jobless and outwardly childish Akira, think of themselves as rebels. They are, after all, an ‘in between’ generation.”
Excerpt from Plainsong
By Kazushi Hosaka
Translated by Paul Warham
All of this made me feel like talking things over with Yumiko again. I called her after lunch the next day from a phone booth near Ebisu station. She picked up on the third ring.
“Hello, stranger. I’m just breast-feeding at the moment, actually.” I had to laugh—this seemed an odd way to start a conversation over the phone with someone who didn’t call more than once in a blue moon. But maybe she talked about this kind of thing with everybody.
“Don’t be silly—you’re not just anybody. But come to think of it, I wouldn’t want to work with anyone unless I felt comfortable talking to them about this kind of thing, so maybe it comes to the same thing. Maybe I do talk about it with just about everyone—everyone I know, anyway.” I had another question, though: how long was it normal to breast-feed a child for?
“I don’t know. I mean, my kid has been eating normal food for ages now. But I decided to keep on breast-feeding till he’s five.”
“Didn’t I mention it before?” Yumiko asked, as if it were the most normal thing in the world. “I think it’s good to provide a child with a strong maternal presence for as long as possible. Don’t they say it helps give a child a more optimistic outlook on life?”
“Who says so?”
“Ah, maybe I just made it up. Anyway, that’s what I think.”
I couldn’t imagine any child of hers being troubled by a pessimistic or gloomy outlook.
“You can’t be too optimistic about these things. The first few years are a crucial period in a person’s life—I’m going to do whatever it takes to bring my child up right.” I decided it was time to get down to business. I thought Yumiko might not know who I was talking about if I just mentioned the name Yoko out of the blue, but she hadn’t forgotten. “The cat lover, right?” She listened with what sounded like interest to what I had to say, and once I’d filled her in on the basics of the situation, gave her diagnosis.
“There are so many stupid kids around today, but every now and then you come across someone like that who still knows what’s what.” My reply to this got off to a bad start when I found myself saying the words, “Back in our day.”
“What am I talking about? But then—what else am I supposed to call it? But that’s not what I meant. I hate those guys who are always going on about how things were ‘Back in our day.’ That’s what I wanted to say.”
Once I’d given Yumiko a good laugh by setting out my reasons for using such a hackneyed phrase, I felt able to continue with what I wanted to say.
People ten years or so younger than us—the generation born ten years or so after the end of the war, for whom the Tokyo Olympics, the Osaka Expo, and the Winter Olympics in Sapporo had been the events that punctuated the early stages of our lives, who had entered university at a time when the student movement was (depending on how you looked at it ) either still going strong or already on its last legs—a generation generally dismissed as having produced no writers or worthwhile literature at all until Kenji Nakagami won the Akutagawa Prize, who were always being told that everything that happened was determined by the state of the country or the world at large; whose whole view of the world was influenced by this way of thinking, and who were incapable of thinking or speaking about the world in any other way—well, compared to us, the people who had come up a decade or more after us, I said, looked at things from a totally different perspective. I noticed as I heard myself speak that I was starting to sound just like the guys who are always droning on about how things were “back in our day,” but I decided to plow on to the end, only to be rewarded by nothing more than a slightly dismissive remark from Yumiko.
“It’s just like you to think like that. Listening to you talk really takes me back. Maybe that’s why you and I haven’t always been able to see eye-to-eye—maybe it’s because I’ve never been able to think of things in that way.” She paused for breath, and I went on. “I realize that now. Or maybe I realized it before, and just keep forgetting.”
“I’m pretty sure I always said it wasn’t right to obsess about the big problems in life—that that wasn’t the way to think about things. But no one else around me thought like that.”
“What about me? I always said the same thing.”
“You were the only one.”
“One is enough. Anyway, even if you did talk like that when you were in college, at least now it’s in quotation marks. That’s one thing that’s changed, at least.”
This was more like the usual Yumiko—an explanation that explained nothing. “Remember you used to write book reviews for that surfing magazine after graduation?” she said.
“You make it sound a lot more impressive than it really was. What about it?”
It was the kind of memory that might come back to me once or twice a year—the kind of memory I didn’t recall unless I happened to come across the words “surfing magazine” somewhere. I was surprised that Yumiko remembered it at all.
“You used to say it was a waste of time, that surfers don’t read books. But that didn’t stop you from doing your best to find books to write about. Books that even surfers might read.”
I remember writing something about Haruki Murakami, only to be told by my editor that our readership wasn’t interested in hard-to-read stuff like that. This was in the days before Murakami became a best seller. So I tried a piece about a novel by Yoshio Kataoka that had surfers as its main characters, but the response was the same: “They won’t read this.” I tried comic books and photo collections, but it was no good—my editor told me to concentrate on books you could imagine someone reading at the beach. I wrote articles about Australian surfing magazines and stuff, and somehow managed to scrape together enough material to earn my twenty-thousand-yen fee or whatever it was each month. “It was fun watching you try to come up with something that people with no interest in books might read, without trying to force books on people. Even if the surfers probably didn’t read any of your recommendations in the end.”
“You can’t force people to read if they don’t want to.”
“That’s what I mean. But you might get your message across in the end if you keep plugging away at it.”
“Things like that?” I thought for a moment. “Like compromising yourself, giving up your beliefs, you mean?”
“I mean ‘things like that,’” Yumiko said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about when you go on like that. Anyway, it’s not the ‘things like that’ that’s important—it’s the ‘keep plugging away at it’ part that really matters.”
This must have been what appealed to her about Yoko, I thought.
“You mean on a daily basis, as part of your daily routine, right?”
“Whatever, dummy,” Yumiko said, leaving a long pause for the meaning of her words to sink in. “Figure it out for yourself.” She was right. But there wasn’t much we could say to continue the topic now.
“It’s so hot!” I said out loud. Sweat had dripped down from my hair onto my neck and was rolling down my chest and back.
“Are you outside somewhere?”
“Yeah. But that’s not why I said it was hot. I just wanted to hear the sound of my own voice.”
“Whatever, dummy. You sound fine to me.”
“Good. Just checking. I always feel good in the summer.” We chatted for a bit, and I suddenly remembered about Ishigami.
“Apparently Ishigami’s going to England next week.”
“Wow, me too. Maybe I’ll see him there.”
“Japanese people are becoming much more international and cosmopolitan these days,” I said. Even as I said it I realized that I was spouting again.
“Whatever. It’s just that the yen’s worth more nowadays,” Yumiko said. “I don’t see what’s so cosmopolitan or international about people who go out of their way to meet other Japanese people when they’re overseas,” Yumiko went on. “We don’t care about anything that’s going on in the world—Chernobyl, the IRA, whatever—we don’t care, we just go,” she said with a laugh. She was starting to sound like Ishigami. And what was it with that laugh of hers anyway?
I was finding it difficult to keep up my side of the conversation. “What would Yoko think if she could hear us now, I wonder?” Yumiko asked. And with that, our conversation came to an end.
—from Plainsong by Kazushi Hosaka