Books: Brrm! Brrm! — Chapter 1 |
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Before the English girl exploded into his life like the torch of a flame-thrower through the slit of a pill-box, Suzuki had been leading the dream existence of every young Japanese man in London. When dealing with the natives it was tiresome to feign pleasure at clumsy jokes about how his name was the same as that of a motor-cycle. But it would have been impolite not to, and anyway, he did not have to give his name very often. If he had been working for a big company he would have had to sit down on the other side of the table from the local people and Exchange Views, which would have meant an exchange of names. The same name as the motor-cycle: Oh yes, most amusing. Brrm! Brrm! Ha ha. The famous English sense of humour, in Suzuki’s experience, consisted largely of asking you to share their delight at a mortal insult. No doubt he was missing the nuances.

But Suzuki did not work for a big company. He was the assistant manager of the other Japanese bookshop: not the big, general one in St Paul’s Yard, the small, more specialised one on the other side of the Cathedral, towards the river. English people came in there to flick through the art books, ask how much they cost and retire shocked. Customers were ready to find Japanese books on Japanese art expensive. They were nonplussed to find that Japanese books on European art were expensive too.

‘Sixty-five pounds? For a book on a French impressionist? That’s twice as much as it would cost in France, for Heaven’s sake.’

‘Sixty-five pounds, yes. I am very sorry.’

‘Sixty-five pounds? Are you sure you haven’t made a mistake with the yen or something?’

‘The book must come from Japan. It is very expensive.’

‘It certainly is. I mean the reproductions are lovely or I wouldn’t even be asking. But that’s a ridiculous amount of money.’


‘And the text isn’t even in English.’


Such exchanges sold few books but they were good for Suzuki’s English, which he was always very keen to practise. The bookshop was the ideal training ground. It even worked both ways. There was the occasional English language student who was learning Japanese. ‘Good day,’ he would say, ‘the weather is good.’ This when it was raining outside so hard that the side of St Paul’s looked like a chalk cliff lashed by a typhoon. ‘Yes,’ Suzuki would say, ‘or perhaps the weather is only so-so.’ They were always delighted to hear the word for so-so. Mama. English modern language students did not know many words so there was rarely an exchange of names. He was safe from jokes about motor-cycles.

Most of the customers were Japanese, including many pretty girls. Two of the girls who worked with him behind the counter were quite pretty also. Despite his shyness, Suzuki had made friends with them. But he did not unbutton much. One of the girls, Keiko, was married, and the other, Mitsuko, was too advanced. She openly disapproved of the subordinate position of women in Japanese life. Lately she had said that she did not want to go back to Osaka. Suzuki was interested in what she said but did not want to get involved with her while she said it. Though he was going to be a writer, the kind of writing he wanted to do was traditional. While at Tokyo University he had published some short stories in a prominent magazine and on the strength of this auspicious debut he had been pleasingly identified as one who wished to restore the limpid values of Kawabata. Suzuki had not thought of it precisely that way before. The minute he heard it said, he decided that it had always been true. Certainly, when he looked back to the famous split between Kawabata and Riichi, Suzuki was on the side of that old delicacy and poise recalling the courtly tradition of the Heian era. He found the School of the New Sensibility aesthetically offensive.

The argument was old by now. Suzuki took sides in it because it involved his temperament. He wanted to see the world, yet he wanted, in his writing, a world reduced to order. Modern life was chaotic even at home. Here, in this foreign land, it was an inferno of unpredictability. Suzuki believed that it was not enough for his work to reflect reality. How can a hand-mirror reflect the lightning? The world must be absorbed, controlled, brought to book. Suzuki knew he had the right cast of mind for this task. He had been tremendous at school, but then young Japanese people always are. More remarkably, he had not wasted his time at university. Japanese universities, even the best ones — face it, even the greatest one, his, Tōdai — are mostly just a beery hiatus between working too hard at school and working too hard at one’s career. Suzuki had made sure that he worked too hard at university as well.

Especially he had worked too hard at his spoken English. He had gone at it like a fanatic. While his fellow students were up in Ueno Park getting drunk at blossom parties, he hung around the President Hotel in Aoyama cadging part-time jobs as an interpreter for English and Australian television companies. Written English had always been his best subject. Before he finished school he could read the whole of The Forsyte Saga. He soon discovered, after his first contact with outsiders, that there was a world of difference between literature and speech. The same difference obtained, of course, in his own language. He should have realised. It had been a big shock to find out that although he could read all the major works of Galsworthy in the original he could not say the author’s name in a way that an English, American or Australian person could understand.

It was small comfort that no American or Australian, and very few people from the United Kingdom, had ever heard of Galsworthy in the first place. He knew that the foreigners were not great readers like his own people. But it had been a humiliation to say ‘Galsworthy’ and have the name not recognised because the ‘l’ sound was insufficiently liquid. And, of course, the ‘th’ sound too sibilant. An Australian television producer, a woman with blotches on her skin that she called freckles, had taught him some good exercises. ‘Look, love, let’s live a little.’ That one had been most useful. ‘Colloquialisms too lavishly employed, lad.’ That one had been a nightmare, but she had patiently made him say it a million times. ‘Thick thews, thin thighs, and thoroughly thoughtless.’ Eventually he had learned to say it without needing to mop up afterwards with a Kleenex.

Also she had invited him into her bed, a courtesy which had induced in Suzuki a profound sense of well-being, because of the size of her room. It was the smallest room the President Hotel offered but it was still twice the size of his room at home. And it was in the centre of Tokyo, whereas the apartment his family lived in was more than an hour out of Shinjuku station on the Saitama line. Going to bed with a foreign girl in a huge room in Aoyama made him feel as adventurous as Mishima. Suzuki did not admire Mishima’s work: except, of course, for the great Confessions of a Mask. But he admired Mishima. Suzuki wanted to be great. Mishima had known how to he a famous man. Unfortunately his notion of fame had entailed early death. Suzuki was definitely not interested in that. Suzuki’s literary sensibility was allied with a business brain. His life in London was harmonised in all its facets, his departures from convention being the most thoughtfully calculated elements of all. In the bookshop he was a marked man, as well he might be. Though he deferred properly to the manager, who had seniority, nobody doubted that Suzuki was a meteor on his way through to glory. Not only was he a graduate of Tōdai who had precociously made his name as a writer of promise, but, even more impressive, he had already been chosen for the express elevator to the top level in the governmental bureaucracy which runs Japan.

At some time in the future Suzuki would be a representative in a special new department of cultural relations. That was why he had been sent to London — to acquire the cosmopolitan case which cannot be learned at home even in the best schools of etiquette. Suzuki objectively regarded himself as ideal casting for this quasi-diplomatic role. With equal dispassion he knew that his retiring personality was a potential drawback. If he followed his instincts, he would keep his contacts with foreigners to a minimum. At work he could hover behind the counter and say little. At home, his English home, he could lock himself in and say nothing. Home was a bed-sitting room, prodigiously large by Japanese standards, in a back street off Belsize Park Road. Apart from the one evening a week in which he dutifully attended a major cultural event, Suzuki could, and frequently did, sit in his room watching videos, reading his favourite semi-pornographic serials in Big Comic, listening to Western classical music on his Boodo-Kahn DD-100, bringing his filing system of culturally interesting press clippings up to date, or practising calligraphy. His one evening per month of hard drinking with acquaintances among Japanese men of his age group should have been enough to take him out of himself. But Suzuki had identified his own shyness, recognised it for a threat, and taken steps to defeat it.

At considerable expense he had joined a health club whose facilities — gymnasium, swimming-pool, squash courts, aerobic dance studios and much else — were built into the preserved shell of an old banking establishment in the city’s financial centre, confusingly called the City. At the price of having to endure many a joke about motor-cycles. Suzuki, while volunteering to further harden his already muscular body, was usefully forced to exercise his colloquial English. Not long after he joined, he met a middle-aged English journalist who had reached a very elementary stage of conversational Japanese and wished to go further, into the areas, fraught with difficulty for all outsiders, of actually reading and writing the Japanese language. In the burning white fog of the steam room, the journalist made it clear that he himself would not be returning to the gymnasium, which had done nothing for him except sprain his back.

‘The biggest mistake I ever made was coming here, believe me.’


‘I mean, if I was twenty years younger and had a body like yours there’d be some point.’

‘Thank you.’

‘But I wouldn’t submit myself to this again even if they threw you in as my personal trainer.’

‘Threw me in?’

‘Included you. What else do you do, apart from this nonsense?’

Suzuki conquered his fear of intimacy and seized the opportunity before it disappeared. They came to an arrangement whereby Suzuki would visit the journalist in his flat for three two-hour sessions a week, one hour of each session to be spent talking advanced English, and the other hour to be spent on the rudiments of written Japanese.

The journalist’s flat was in the Barbican development, on the side nearest Smithfield market. Suzuki could walk there easily after work. From his viewpoint the arrangement worked well from the start. The journalist made homosexual advances which Suzuki rejected with a suave tact that he was pleased to achieve in a language not his own. Actually he had no moral objection. He simply found the journalist, as he found most outsiders, physically repellent. The thought of a would-be seducer getting unwashed into the bath, and sitting there in his own scum, made Suzuki’s face freeze. But the journalist was not without intelligence. He had a knack for explaining tricky English idioms. He had, however, no special gift for acquiring the two Japanese phonetic alphabets, and it was doubtful if he would be able even to make a start with the character alphabet, but his motivation was good. Suzuki conscientiously set out to match his pupil’s stumbling eagerness with the long patience of a teacher. At the end of a two-hour session, the journalist, whose name was Rochester, would have learned the difference between, say, ‘o’ and ‘a’ in the cursive phonetic script. Suzuki would have learned how a saying like ‘I’ve got him to thank for that’ can mean two entirely opposite things without even a difference of emphasis.

Suzuki got the sense that Rochester-san’s career on a famous national Sunday newspaper was not going well. ‘I’m one step ahead of the boot’ was an elegant expression once decoded, but how confusing initially! Suzuki and Rochester-san were of one accord. Japanese was insanely difficult to read, and English was insanely difficult to speak. They would shake their heads ruefully at one another, but as Suzuki went roaring home on the incredibly dirty tube train, he felt wealthier than a man visiting a shrine who dips the provided bamboo cup into the drinking fountain and finds himself sipping neat Scotch whisky. He was getting so much the best of the bargain that you could scarcely call it a deal at all. It was more like — what was the phrase? — daylight robbery. Hard to say.

Daylight robbery. Suzuki subvocalised the phrase. but his lips must have moved, because two young English people who were standing up a few feet away started laughing at him. One of them, the girl, had her hair arranged like the spines of a sea cucumber dipped in black lacquer. She wore a brooch of artificial stones in the side of her nose and the clothes of a speedway rider who had been recently buried under a fallen building. The boy had a haircut like the crest on the helmet of a Roman officer, while his skull and face had been painted to recall the helmet itself. He wore a chain-mail shirt, paratroop pants, and a pair of boots that looked as if a baseball had been stuffed into each toe. Suzuki thought with nostalgia of his nights out in Akasaka when he and his fellow high-school students had considered it daring to share a dish of ice-cream in the Western-style patisserie. He held his mouth rigid and just thought the words. Daylight robbery.

It went almost without saying that Suzuki would have been a catch for any Japanese girl in London. He avoided, however, even the hint of an entanglement. In Tokyo, when there were still a few shot-traps in his carapace, before he had learned the full measure of his present caution, he had been on the point of becoming engaged to a quite unsuitable girl. It had taken the combined efforts of his mother and sister to separate him from the snare. In London he saw Japanese girls occasionally, but only in social groups. For anything more serious he had recourse, as seldom as his healthily urgent needs allowed, to English massage girls who wore nothing under their nurse’s uniforms. Their lack of cleanliness sometimes made him gag and even the pretty ones were no pleasure to the eye when one looked closely. In Tokyo he enjoyed going to the kind of bar where you could inspect the genitals of the hostess from close range. Clinical cleanliness was so basic to the transaction that it did not need to be mentioned. To try the same thing with an English prostitute would be like conducting a survey of industrial pollution. As a man who didn’t like to run risks, Suzuki was doing his best to contain himself. Big Comic helped. Bon Comic was even better, being more like hard pornography, but it had to be carefully concealed from the landlady, who might not have survived an encounter with its illustrations, especially the ones in the small advertisements for such harmless devices as double-pronged spiked vibrators with warm water ejaculation reservoirs, clear plastic sphincter-viewing tubes, serrated nipple clips and self-lubricating artificial vaginas. Big Comic was reasonably safe. Apart from the occasional full-page illustration of a bound, naked girl shouting with pleasure while being forced to straddle on tip-toe a bar-stool covered with cactus leaves, it was quite decorous.

For some time Suzuki’s only relationship with a Western woman had been with the tall blonde American criminal princess in Big Comic whose handsome Japanese lover buried his had between her legs while she was on the telephone giving orders to her twin black assassins. Lying naked on his little bed with the comic held open above him, Suzuki in his fantasies imagined himself in the position of the lover. For the short while that each bout of self-satisfaction lasted, he felt cause to regret that his affair with the Australian television producer had so quickly come to an end. He could see now that he had underplayed his hand. He had made himself too available. Instead of commuting home each night at a decent hour he had checked himself in to a capsule hotel, so as to be able to linger with her in her enormous room without having to worry about catching the last train. Having inconvenienced himself to such an extent, he had pressed for favours in recompense, pushing her further and faster than her reserve allowed. He should have kept things so that it was always she who had to ask. He easily could have. Finally she had become frightened, and had restored the status of mere friendship, leaving him to stew with politely masked annoyance. Luckily her camera crew did not know about the affair, so the humiliation was merely wounding, instead of intolerable. What haunted him still, though, was not the embarrassment but the fact that he had miscalculated. Properly managed, the liaison would have lasted until the day she left Japan, and been renewed each time that she came back — as she would have done, because they always come back to Japan. Suzuki had learned from his experience. He never made the same mistake twice. But really he preferred not to make a mistake even once.

To the casual eye, then, the well-placed Suzuki seemed as easily at home as any civilised young man could be in a barbarous foreign city. A more expert gaze would have detected that he was perpetually alert, balanced lightly on the balls of his feet, ready for any impact. It is a characteristic of ambition to expect the unexpected. What is known can be dealt with automatically. There is energy in reserve to deal with the unknown, which, if not precisely welcome, at least poses only a dilemma, rather than threatening paralysis. Suzuki knew that the English girl was unstable the moment he saw her. Three Japanese girl tourists, after browsing for an hour at the magazine racks while dutifully obeying the written injunction not to remove the polythene wrappers from the latest issues of More, With and Glossy, had finally settled for buying one copy of Jump Comic to share among them. By the time he had given them their change and they were on their way out of the shop giggling, the English girl had already arrived, penetrated as far as the art book shelves, and begun to treat one of the most expensive boxed books as if she owned it. Her appearance was startling enough. In Tokyo you could see punk young people in the Shibuya district at night, but few of them cared, or dared, to adopt the whole panoply of this most aberrant among Western fashions. Instead they wore tokens. A girl would have a safety-pin through her ear but be wearing a school blazer. A boy would have green hair and big boots, but his leather suit would look tailored. Wildness was strictly controlled. The visual impact of this girl was out of hand from top to bottom. None of it even looked particularly meant. She was not like one of those exotic works of art he had seen on the tube train, or queueing in Soho or Oxford Street to get into an all-night dance hall. Her spiky blonde hair was not a creation. It was an accident. It not only looked dyed, it looked dead. In a ghostly white face her large eyes were black-rimmed: a pistol had been fired twice at point blank range through a sheet of paper. Her mouth, painted crimson, hung open as if she had to breathe through it. The teeth inside it were the neatest thing about her. Neat teeth were important to Suzuki, a member of the new Japanese generation whose dentition is in such good shape that they can afford to be critical of their elders.

Below the head, the girl’s body might have been strong and healthy. It was difficult to tell. Though her black T-shirt looked as if it might be covering very large breasts, a baggy black jacket, too heavy for a fine late winter day like this, covered the T-shirt. If the trousers had been baggy also, the ensemble might have looked intentional, like something by a good Japanese designer — Yohji, for example. But she was wearing what looked like the bottom half of a tight black sweat-suit made for someone much smaller. Between the hems of her leggings and the tops of her huge black boots there was a double dose of startling white shin. She would have been disturbing to look at even in repose. She moved constantly, with no clear purpose. Suzuki knew the word for it: fidget. He even knew the phrase: to have some fidgets. No, to have the fidgets. This girl had the fidgets. She slapped her way through the double-coated art paper pages of the hugely expensive book. Suzuki could tell which one it was. It was the beautiful book about Japanese industrial design and marketing campaigns. Mostly it consisted of photographs but the captions were in Japanese. The girl had evidently been made impatient by this latter fact. She put the book roughly back in the box without first aligning the wrapper with the book proper. There would be bound to be some creasing caused to the wrapper. She looked impatient while she was doing this, as if it were the fault of the book, or the box, or both. Having accomplished the task to standards which she evidently deemed good enough, she put the book back in the wrong place without even looking, cramming it into the shelf until it made a sufficient space.

Meanwhile she was looking at books about Japan in the shelves which had previously been behind her, but which she was now half facing. Most of these books, like the one she had just been looking at, were written in the Japanese language. In a Japanese bookshop this should have been no great surprise. Her impatience only increased. Seemingly preferring the devil she knew, she turned back to the shelves at which she had just rummaged. Suzuki was fascinated to note that her turning movement, while in no way simple, could not be described as complex either. It was merely random. She travelled in six different directions, settling on one of them after growing tired of the others. She searched the shelves with an impatience which made her previous agitation look like the schooled calm of a tea master. Finally she found what she had been looking for. It was the same boxed book that she had previously maltreated. She pulled it roughly from the shelf as though to punish it for having hidden. Pulling it from its box looked more difficult than it ought to have been. Suzuki assumed that this was because the wrapper was crumpled from the previous attack. He decided it was time to intervene. Leaving the desk in the care of Keiko and Mitsuko, he threaded his way between the customers surrounding the low horizontal display areas of newly published books, headed down the alley between the high shelves, and held his open hand just above the girl’s forearm.

‘Here,’ he said. ‘Let me show you.’

‘About time,’ said the girl. ‘It’s fucking stuck.’

‘I’m afraid that’s because you caused it a certain amount of damage when you first took it out of the box,’ said Suzuki with the casual triumph of a diver who successfully completes three and a half forward somersaults from the high tower and surfaces to find that his entry into the pool has caused scarcely a ripple. It had been a difficult sentence to bring off, especially with the ‘because’ and the ‘caused’ so close together. But he had not panicked. He was in command. It was his favourite feeling. Most Japanese men, if they were sworn at in their opening encounter with a Western woman, would behave as if they had been cut off at the knees by a ceremonial sword: a sudden smile and they would fall away. Suzuki forged on.

‘I hate having to ask you to be more careful,’ he said, ‘but the book is very dear.’

‘How much is it then?’ she said scornfully.

‘I meant very precious. But also it is very expensive, yes.’

He told her how much it was. She pronounced the sum ridiculous. With phrases polished by constant use, he explained to her how much it cost to bring books from Japan. The girl announced that in that case she would have to read the book in the shop. She described herself as a free-lance journalist doing an article about Japan. The article was in an advanced stage but she needed a few more facts. Telling him all this took ten times as long as it would have taken any other human being he had ever met, because of the way her speech wandered.

‘... and they knew that if they wanted me to do it, they’d have to pay me, because of all the money they owed me, so of course they panicked, just the way they did when they owed me money in the band. I was a singer you know, still am really, but who wants that? Because you have to do what you’re the only one, don’t I? Who can do it properly, and I’m the only one who can do this kind of article, that’s been proved ...’

Suzuki let it all pass over him because he did not know how to stop it. There were very few full stops. Eventually there was a question mark that he thought he could respond to. If he was free after work, she suggested or requested, perhaps he would like to help her? Agreeing without hesitation, Suzuki steered her back to the desk and gave her his card. Like most Westerners she did not have a card of her own. He gave her a piece of the bookshop’s writing-paper so that she could write down her name and address. She grew impatient with the ball-point pen he lent her, and positively enraged with the paper for not being the right width. Just watching her go out of the door was like being the eye-witness to a car crash. For the two hours left in the working day, Suzuki examined his heart to find out why he had succumbed. The answer seemed inescapable. He craved danger. But he was not the man for that. Perhaps he would have to change himself. He was not the man for that either.