Magazine article The Spectator

Adrift in Japan

Magazine article The Spectator

Adrift in Japan

Article excerpt

Adrift in Japan Francis King MR FOREIGNER by Matthew Kneale Weidenfeld, 10, pp. 155, ISBN 0297828991

Like the Booker, the Whitbread has produced some controversial and occasionally even bizarre winners. But when Matthew Kneale's English Passengers became the 2000 Whitbread Book of the Year, few people can have quarrelled with the decision. Whether, if Kneale had not achieved that triumph, any publisher would have thought of reissuing this first of his three novels seems to me highly improbable. It certainly marked a promising debut; but at least a dozen equally or more promising debuts must have taken place that same year.

Just as Aldous Huxley's charming but tenuous Crome Yellow gave no indication that he would eventually write such intellectually vigorous and innovative books as Brave New World and Point Counter Point, so this book gave no indication that, 13 years later, Kneale would prove capable of producing a near-masterpiece as complex, ample and robust as English Passengers.

There is a whole genre of books about Japan - John Haylock's fictional See You Again and Peregrine Hodson's autobiographical A Circle Round the Sun are notable examples - which deal with the confusion of visitors exposed for the first time to a culture so utterly different from any previously known to them. Haylock extracted buoyant comedy from this confusion and its consequent misunderstandings and embarrassments. In contrast, Kneale resembles Hodson in finding something sinister and even dangerous behind the stereotypical gig-lamps, giggling, and bowlegged, diminutive physiques.

Hodson at one point writes, `Living in Japan is a mind-over-matter experience. They don't mind and you don't matter.' That is, inherently, also the final conclusion of Kneale's tale of an innocent, Daniel Thayne, adrift in a dead-end relationship with a Japanese divorcee, Keiko, who is older than he is and who, he eventually discovers, comes from a family of powerful yakuza in control of a number of Tokyo brothels. …

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