See Japan through David Mitchell’s eyes

Novels by former Hiroshima-ken resident worth a look

By Judy Kroo

judykroobookreviewFaced with ice-cold classrooms, ice-slicked roads and seemingly interminable darkness, what better way to spend an evening than huddled around the kerosene heater with a book, warming up after yet another day spent cursing the lack of both insulation and central heating in a supposedly modernized country? Of course it is easy to garner loads of brownie points with respective JTEs if one evinces, or even feigns, a deep and overwhelming interest in classical Japanese literature translated or not, but in the deep cold of winter, it is probably a good idea to have some books set aside simply for pleasure.

With that in mind, now might be a good time to add the work of David Mitchell, a contemporary novelist whose next work is set for publication in the near future, to your Amazon Wish List this holiday season. Beyond his literary talent, which has led to two of his four novels being shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Mitchell has a shared trajectory with Hiroshima JETs — he first came to Hiroshima prefecture in 1994 and taught English in the inaka for eight years at various levels including a local technical university before returning to England. Further, like so many others before him who were taken over by an almost inexplicable obsession with this country, he has returned to live in Japan while completing his fifth, currently untitled, novel about Dejima, the man-made island in Nagasaki which was constructed for the use of Dutch traders during the Shogunate.

While Mitchell’s literary interests and aspirations are extensive, encompassing such seemingly unrelated fields as comic books, nineteenth century travelogues and detective novels, and so seem designed to elude easy dissection, Mitchell’s long sojourn in Japan practically jumps off the pages of his books. Unlike many Western writers who have come to Japan and written about it from a skewed, almost naïve perspective, his writing is deeply informed about this country, full of inside knowledge and refreshingly clear-eyed observations.

This is nowhere more apparent than in Mitchell’s second novel, number9dream, which is set in Tokyo and the island of Yakushima. At its core, number9dream is a standard coming-of-age story, relating the hero Eiji Miyake’s search for his father with periodic shifts in time as Eiji reminisces about his childhood on Yakushima or reads from a journal kept at the end of World War II. However, what keeps number9dream from turning into another forgettable adventure of self-discovery are the layers upon layers of fantastical re-tellings of events. Eiji, it turns out, has quite an active imagination and has a great deal in his life that he would rather not deal with, leading to rather outlandish imagined situations. For example, while trying to work up the courage to meet his father’s lawyer, Eiji conjures up scenario upon potential scenario, each one more unbelievable than the last, until at last the very streets of Tokyo are submerged in biblical flood.

Mitchell’s fixation with Japan is by no means limited to number9dream. His first novel, Ghostwritten, for example, features a member of a doomsday cult obviously based on Aum Shinrikyo, who is hiding out in Okinawa following his involvement in a nerve agent attack on a Tokyo subway train. The same novel also tells the story of a half Japanese, half Filipina clerk in a Tokyo record shop who is obsessed with jazz and lonely for love.

In Cloud Atlas, Mitchell’s third and by far his most well-regarded work, the references to Japan are more obtuse and less apparent than in Ghostwritten and number9dream, but they are there nonetheless, thinly veiled behind language. Mitchell’s obsession with post-apocalyptic futures that gleam in barely concealed manga stylings, his dizzying flights into a magical realism that is deeply indebted to science fiction, and his interest in the lines drawn between technology and the environment — these are all interests that would be perfectly at home on the pages and screens of a Japanese story.

In these novels and, indeed, in all of his novels, Mitchell compellingly mixes high literary language within grounded narrative. His work is a good antidote to the tedium of grey inaka winter afternoons and evenings, the perfect way to wile the hours away at home, or indeed during a particularly drawn-out stretch of time in the office.