Books: Brrm! Brrm! — Chapter 14 |
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It was too early for the public to turn up. Judging from their uncultured appearance, the people waiting outside the embassy must have been reporters. One of them was eating, from a cardboard box, something called an Individual Fruit Pie. Luckily Suzuki knew an alternative way in, through the visa section. One of his monthly dining companions was on duty there. He greeted Suzuki with the restrained joy of the pregnant wife of a nuclear power plant worker after his escape from a decontamination unit. But the back-door route was made clear for Suzuki’s unobtrusive introduction into the backstage area of the grand reception room in which the Kabuki lecture would take place. Suzuki met the actor, once a protégé of the great Yutaemon. The actor, whose stage name was Maruichi, was quite prominent in his field and Suzuki was able to ask for an autograph without hypocrisy. It was a bit like meeting a Sumo wrestler of the second rank. The actor had never quite made it to the top flight. Hence his availability abroad. While his contemporaries had been working every night at the main Kabuki theatre near the Ginza 4-chome crossing, this actor had been pretty well permanently on tour, spreading the message of his subtle art to the world. Subtlety he certainly had. He was a wonderfully accomplished performer. For the all-important onnagata, or female, roles, however, he had always been that crucial degree short of beauty, and nowadays he was also short of youth. He showed no sign of embarrassment about these facts. While Suzuki equipped himself with fresh outer garments, the actor talked freely about everything — except, mercifully, Suzuki’s own adventures. To the actor, Suzuki was anonymous. It made a change.

Maruichi planned to do all the acting himself, except for one scene in which he would need Suzuki’s assistance. It was a famous scene from the old play in which a great courtesan, the most expensive flower of the Yoshiwara district, casts a single glance on a visiting peasant and thereby enslaves him. The peasant’s open-mouthed reaction to the beauty’s searing glance presages his eventual ruin. The actor made it clear that it would not be necessary for Suzuki to register this reaction in any more than a token way. A mere lowering of the eyelids for a few seconds would do. Suzuki lowered his eyelids for a few seconds in the prescribed manner. When he opened them again he found that the actor had been joined by the Cultural attaché, who announced that the house was already full, with the press almost outnumbering the public. The press had been asked to occupy the chairs at the back of the room. There was even a television crew, from the prestigious BBC Arts programme Kafka Before Breakfast. While saying all this the Cultural attaché was gazing significantly at Suzuki, as if he needed reminding not to raise the possibility that these media attentions could be dedicated to anyone except the actor. While the actor and his dresser attended to the costumes, the Cultural attaché took Suzuki discreetly aside and advised him to enter the room at the same time as the actor, so that any additional stir that might be created could not be traced too blatantly to its possible source. If Suzuki had not already known that this meant him, the Cultural attaché’s deep sigh would have been a broad hint.

The stratagem worked. Above the routine applause there was a vivid buzz of interest when they entered the unexpected warmth of the overcrowded salon, but the actor could have been forgiven for thinking that it was all for him and his first costume. He was dressed as a Samurai who had become a ghost, retaining his full armour, including horned helmet and two swords. The actor gave an outline of the story in Japanese. Flash-bulbs popped. The actor would perhaps have found it strange that the TV camera at the back of the room was focused on Suzuki. But the actor had his eyes closed, concentrating. Then he drew both of his swords and did a stamping dance, which culminated in a sudden rush down the central aisle, the swords whirling only just over the heads of the audience. When he reached the press seats the actor went into a particular frenzy, the swords whirling so fast that they looked like glittering wheels. Fragments of an Individual Fruit Pie flew through the air. Suzuki saw Val Butcher duck for cover.

Making up and changing costume in full view of the audience, the actor explained how the maquillage and full dress kimono of the Heian era courtesan were applied, assembled and secured, Suzuki translated. At school he had been obliged to learn the name of every piece of cloth involved in every variety of court dress from the earliest historical time until the modern age, so the task of translation, instead of impossible, was merely difficult. When he forgot the word ‘gusset’ he searched the front seats for a helpful female face. Neither Jane nor Lilian, of course, was present. But there were plenty of kindly looking Anglo-Saxon faces willing to help. He felt strangely close to them. On the other hand he felt strangely distant from the traditional culture with whose tensions and conventions his mind was so thoroughly stocked. Kabuki and Noh — what was their drama compared to the spectacle of a pale girl dangling from a balcony, of a goddess rising naked from the bubbles? What was a long evening with geiko and the few, sparse, plucked notes of the shamisen, compared with the splendour of these untamed women flickering in the thunder, mouthing incomprehensible charms like lovely witches, fighting for his damned soul? How could he go back to that old order, whose inexorable, suffocating tact the actor now proceeded to incarnate with a virtuoso twenty-five-minute impersonation of a certain noble lady of the court contemplating the vicissitudes of her forbidden love fora Muromachi Emperor’s senior inspector of fortifications?

While the actor, accompanied by taped music consisting mainly of hiss and crackle, pursed his painted lips significantly or opened a fan with untoward abruptness in order to indicate a troubled spirit, Suzuki sat at the side of the stage area on his own specially supplied chair. From that angle he could see that Mrs Thelwell and Lionel were sitting near the middle of the room and to one side. Lionel held up an approving thumb and Mrs Thelwell waved. It occurred to Suzuki that he knew this woman far more intimately than his mother, his sister or either of his aunts. He scarcely knew her at all, of course — but then, the same applied to them. And with them he had spent a lifetime. Not a very long lifetime, but already he was getting towards being a third of the way through it, or perhaps more. Practically everything that had ever happened to him had happened to him here, within a few miles of where he was now sitting, with his legs crossed in front of him instead of folded underneath. Was there no other way of evaluating this turbulent present, except as the certain ruination of his future? Not that he could think of, no. Though his face did not betray it, fear returned to his heart, fanned by the realisation that the two men in dark glasses sitting in the row behind Mrs Thelwell and Lionel Were the bodyguards of Sir Ernest Papadakis.

With Suzuki translating, the actor talked the audience through another costume change and readjustment of his make-up. This time he was turning himself into the famous courtesan of the Yoshiwara district. The women in the audience were particularly appreciative when he climbed onto his clogs and demonstrated the intricacies of the courtesan’s special walk, with one clog swaying outwards in an arc before being placed carefully in front of the other, the whole demanding manoeuvre advancing in an unbroken flow. The actor explained that to accomplish this walk, while facially conveying all the subtlety of the courtesan’s portentous interior debate about whether or not to place her spell on the unpolished visitor from a more pure world, was the great challenge of the onnagata actor’s career, and one which he himself never undertook without first mentally rededicating himself to his art.

Finally the music started. The actor, with infinite slowness, began the long journey that would take him diagonally across the stage towards the fateful point of decision. Suzuki, in the role of the country bumpkin, stood patiently waiting to be glanced at. When, after an epoch had passed, he finally was, he was careful not to exceed his instructions, merely lowering his eyelids as he had been told.

Applause woke him up. He was being helped to his feet by two women. One of them he recognised by her buttery odour as Mrs Thelwell. But who was the other one, who smelled so strongly of talcum and eau-de-Cologne?

‘Christ, what drama!’ bellowed Val Butcher. ‘What drama! You were terrific.’

Suzuki could see the actor, still high up on his clogs, looking down in what might have been either anger or compassion — the white make-up made it hard to tell. The Cultural attaché’s emotions were easier to interpret. He was mopping his face with a Burberry handkerchief. It was hot. Perhaps that was why Suzuki had fainted. Anyway, that was the story the Cultural attaché was telling.

‘Our young friend has been temporarily overcome by the heat and his responsibilities. But I think he is ready to continue with the rest of the programme, in which Maruichi-sensai will answer any questions that members of the audience might have about the art and history of Kabuki.’

‘Just before that,’ came a loud voice from the end of the room, ‘just before that, if you don’t mind. I wonder if we could be terrifically rude and ask for something we need?’

‘I’m afraid I ...’ the Cultural attaché began.

‘Wladislaw Januloviczesceu of Kafka Refore Breakfast,’ shouted the voice again. ‘Could we just ask Mr Suzuki to do his wonderful stunned fall again? We just want to get another angle on it.’

‘I’m afraid we must continue with the programme as planned,’ said the Cultural attaché, directing this answer at Suzuki, who got the idea that his life depended on calling for the first question immediately. Luckily it was from one of the well-preserved women in the front seats. She asked a safely straightforward question about how a ceremonial kimono could be cleaned. Suzuki translated. The actor indicated every seam that needed to be undone and explained the individual method by which each had to be restitched afterwards. By the time Suzuki had translated all this the evening had regained the desirable stately pace from which it had been diverted by his fainting fit. He even had time to wonder what had caused it. Had it really been fear? Or had that moment, famous in the cultural history of his country, merely compressed into an instant the transfiguring extent to which he had indeed been stricken by the possibilities of a richer, wider world? Strangely he felt serene. The worst had happened. He was a dead man. Yet he was still breathing. Val Butcher had her hand up, trying to ask a question. Suzuki ignored her and chose someone else. Every press person wanted to ask a question but he ignored them all. The actor, Suzuki was glad to note, seemed happy to keep things as unchallenging as possible. The evening crawled towards its scheduled end. The TV camera lens had drooped. ‘I’ve enjoyed this evening,’ said a florid man who looked as if he might once have been an army officer. ‘Especially that bit where you fell down. But I wonder if we really understand each other better after an evening like this. Each other’s cultures, I mean. Do we really understand each other any better than when we were shooting at each other? Could you ask Mr Maruichi all that? Sorry I haven’t been too concise.’

Suzuki translated, expecting an anodyne reply. This was touchy territory. It didn’t do to be too specific.

‘This is a good question,’ said the actor to Suzuki. Perhaps you will translate my answer a portion at a time. It will give me time to think.’

‘Of course.’

‘My opinion is only that of an artist, not a politician, but after more than thirty years of constant travel all over the world, much of it in the West, it occurs to me that whether our cultures understand each other is not a meaningful question unless each culture understands itself. And here you have the advantage of us.’

Suzuki translated with a sudden sense of responsibility. This was going to be more difficult, and more important, than he had expected.

‘No culture understands its own origins better than ours does. All of us Japanese, without exception, know better than you do how the country we live in came to be. But the recent past is a blank. Too many of us know too little about it, and we are not well served by those whose job it is, or should be, to tell us.’

Suzuki translated. The members of the press, he noticed, were all talking to one another. The TV man with the long name was talking animatedly to his cameraman. Val Butcher had a compact open and was repainting her lips. The public, however, was listening politely.

‘Militarism was the great disaster of our country’s recent history. Travelling in the Pacific area especially, I have seen the scars of it, how long they last. No, not just scars: unhealed wounds, still festering. Yet our young people are not told about these things. Our media write silly articles and make silly programmes in countries we once damaged. Our silly television stars hold themselves superior to people whose parents suffered at our hands. We have raised a generation of young people who are brilliant at examinations but who know nothing.’

Suzuki felt as if he had been chosen for this moment. The actor had used the word masukomi, a Japanese contraction for ‘mass communications’. Suzuki had known that this word needed to be translated as ‘media’. English might be impossible to master but a little was better than none.

‘Personally I hope that young people like Mr Suzuki — please translate this also — will leave the traditional arts to look after themselves and devote their gifts to the business of making popular entertainment more intelligent. There will always be Kabuki actors and master swordsmiths. What we need is more journalists and television announcers and entertainers who know what our country has lived through and can talk about it without arrogance and without fear. That is my hope for our country. And of one thing I am absolutely sure. Those of our young people who have dedicated themselves to learning your language and studying your history and your culture will play a crucial part in illuminating ours. Sometimes they become confused, caught between two worlds.’ Here the actor smiled at Suzuki — a man’s smile behind a woman’s mouth. ‘But the only future world worth living in belongs to them.’

The Cultural attaché was shaking his head at Suzuki. Obviously he meant that there should be no more questions. Whether he also meant that he had lost all faith in existence was harder to determine. It might have been the heat that had made him so pale. On behalf of the actor, Suzuki thanked the audience. Suddenly the television crew was all business. Suzuki saw the man with the long name waving at him. But when Sir Ernest’s two bodyguards talked to the man with the long name he stopped waving. Then the bodyguards converged on Suzuki.

‘Sir Ernest’, said the merely big one, ‘suggested you might like to come on over for a talk.’

‘No offence,’ said the really big one. ‘We’ve heard what you’re like in a punch-up. But it might be better all round if we went straight there without the press buzzing about. Nuff said?’

They had already led him up the aisle and were steering him towards a side room through the dispersing crowd. Some press men who looked as if they might close in thought better of it. ‘Who are the minders, then?’ one of them piped bravely, but from a safe distance. Val Butcher stood facing the TV camera, talking to the man with the long name, who was standing beside it. ‘And then he was lying in my arms,’ Suzuki heard her say, ‘and it was a moment I’ll never ...’

Outside there was a big black Mercedes waiting.