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Thursday, 6 November 2014

Triangle - Hisaki Matsuura (translated by David Karashima)

The savagery, the degradation, the malaise, the amorality, the brutality, the loss of one’s way.

Welcome to the world of the outsider Otsuki, our narrator, who we learn in the first two pages of this novel is sleeping with a married woman, Hiroko, is unemployed and broke:

Not job, no money, and only the weakest grasp of another man’s woman. This was a life built by picking up the pieces of one that had crumbled. Darkness was the only thing on my horizon, and I knew no way to come back out into the light.

Otsuki is talked into visiting an ex-co-worker’s current sensei, Koyama, where he is offered employment (as he had conned people into believing he spoke French), is given a theory on the concept of time, whereby it is not a loop, not linear but a case of multiple “nows” each within the present “now” and is then shown a film “The structure of the film was simple – scenes showing the habits of various insects inter-spliced with scenes of explicit pornography.”

The insect scenes show females devouring males after mating, other insects feasting on yet other insects from the inside out and decay, the film blending in to reveal, what appears to be a teenage girl in explicit scenes with a savage unidentified male.

We learn that our protagonist, Otsuki, lost his mother early in life “before I’d had a chance to mature mentally and physically, maybe this was why the desire for a female guardian figure has always remained with me, lodged in the deepest core of my being, preventing me from ever becoming a true adult.” Yes we are dealing with an insecure, adolescent here even though he is in his 30’s.

As the novel opens with a theme of cinematic “art” the vivid imagery sits quite nicely. This section reminding me of Peter Greenaway’s “The Pillow Book” from 1996:

I pressed my face into the creamy pale skin of Hiroko’s back as she lay on her stomach, drifting off to sleep. I was enjoying the warmth of her body through closed eyes, allowing myself to be drawn to the verge of slumber before raising my head to drag myself back into the waking world. Drinking in her fragrance, I open my eyes to see her paleness extend mercilessly. It is all I see, and I am engulfed. Her velvety smooth skin moist with perspiration seems to go on forever, at once imprisoning and protecting me.
As that stifling feeling transforms into an immense pleasure that relaxes me from the tips of my fingers and toes to every part of my body, I am overcome by the feeling that this is the kind of thing – no, that this is the one thing – that I live for. I am being bathed from outside and in, my body is soaked, more deeply and more sweetly drenched with every passing moment. Hiroko transforms from being herself, or anyone else, to being the essence of woman, and I give myself to her paleness, to be carried away by a silent stream, bumping along with the current…Then again, I bury my face in her back and I surrender to the gentle ebb and flow that is the rhythm of her breath. From the window, dusk is already seeping into the room, and the paleness of this body next to me and the jet-blackness of her hair that teased its way across the pillows begin to melt into darkness.

As our novel unfolds we are introduced to more shadier characters, we understand more of Otsuki’s past, his shameless exit from University, his demise into drugs, his employment as a con-man and his unstable state of mind:

I stood at the top of the hill and watched the sun set, thinking how, deep inside, I’d always gotten perverse pleasure from my self-destruction. But at the same time, my body had accrued a fatigue over the weeks, the months, and whole ten years of my demise. Was I ever going to find a steady job, start a fami8ly, and claim my place in society? Or was I going to let myself rot away? Perhaps change started with small steps toward a more orderly and comfortable life. But has I let things go too far, allowed my life to shatter into too many pieces for it ever to be put back together?

The back cover refers to this as “surreal noir”, I wouldn’t go that far, even though it does contain a mysterious heroine in Tomoe (the “young” girl featured in the film), a hero who wants to rescue her and numerous blockages to his quest. A story peppered with hallucinatory states, déjà vu, people following you, shadows that move across your path:

Again, I felt as if all human life had vanished, that I’d wandered into a wholly different world where spirits lurk.

You are reading this work as though you’ve read parts of it before, surely I read that 50 pages ago? As a reader “we go back to a different ‘now’”.

Our sensei Koyama is meant to be a reputable calligrapher:

“And because I’m a calligrapher, I think about my work, about words and kanji, all day long. And what I think is that humans are just like kanji. Writing, it is said, was invented by imitating the actual shape of things. But it seems to me that it’s people who are imitating the kanji. The movement of the human body. A running man. A dancing woman. Aren’t these kinds of characters, too? Written characters? Not just the body. The human mind and spirit are also composed of combinations of strokes – dots, flicks, flowing lines, bold lines, lines that fade away.”

The theme of calligraphy is also repetitive, at one stage Otskui returns to Koyama’s conservatory to meet his lover who has mysteriously appeared there and we then have a number of chapters that are the recollections of a drug induced haze. What is reality, what is subconscious, what is the line between beauty and depravity, life and death, black and white? (calligraphy?) “Everything is the equivalent of nothing”.

This leads me to the title of this novel, “Triangle”, something I do not understand. The original title in Japanese was “Tomoe”, a Japanese abstract shape described as a swirl that resembles a comma or a round arm protector used by an archer, or a magatama (jade beads from prehistoric Japan – again shaped like a comma). So why “Triangle”? A sharp edged shape. Our heroine here is called Tomoe and of course the style of the novel with the circular “now” references and the repeating spirals in no way resembles a triangle.

Further mystery occurs when Otsuki manages to return home to recover from the “binge” only to discover cans of beer, glasses of water, cigarette butts in his sink all appearing over time. Is he still hallucinating? Is his reality becoming circular and he doesn’t recall his own actions? But he is nonchalant about these occurrences as he’s “stepped outside this world”.

Then out of the blue Hiroko’s (his lover’s) husband calls, “you can keep her, but what I won’t let you keep is the thing she took from me when she left”….our mystery deepens. And I haven’t yet even mentioned our protagonist’s obsession with Tomoe (the girl in the movie) nor his employment to finish the film…a complex web has been woven, can it be untangled?

I’ll leave the revelations at that as you may want to read this yourself however be warned there are a large number of loose ends that are not fully solved here. This would be the one criticism I have of the book (besides the absurd title choice) in that there are people introduced who we no longer hear about, themes that simply fade away, and a publicists view that the “bizarre pornographic movie” is central to the theme, it is simply a way to introduce our heroine and our anti-hero’s obsession with her.

An intriguing work which does have its moments, I really enjoyed the feeling of space and time and the repetition, déjà vu, mystical and calligraphy themes, the shallow shady side characters a little less so.

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