[16 February 2009]
“Is there anything sadder or more useless than a book of poems nobody wants?”—One Morning Like A Bird
There is a school of thinking, particularly among critics who read Edward Saïd at an impressionable age, with the view that Western writers should not attempt Eastern themes or settings. The heritage of colonialism and orientalism and a dozen other -isms has left this entire territory a De-Militarised Zone—enter at your own risk. No matter how good your intentions, the argument goes, you are bound to trivialise, trample, and devalue.
Now, there are compelling arguments to suggest that a lot of Anglo-European work on Asian themes and topics should never have been written. The gross insensitivity, ignorance and facile exoticism that critics are wary of are real issues in books both past and present. Unfortunately, a blanket ban would rule out clever, responsible and just plain well-written works like Andrew Miller’s One Morning Like A Bird.
Miller is an English writer who has lived in a range of countries, including Japan. He may not seem the obvious candidate to write an imaginative and profound reflection on Japanese identity in the early days of the Second World War, but having read it, it’s hard to argue with his right to do so.
One Morning Like A Bird begins in Tokyo in 1940. Yuji, the principal character, is 25 years old and exempted from military service due to a variety of health issues. He spends his time writing poetry, engaging in French conversation classes and generally being a sensitive young man. Then war and his family’s straitened circumstances begin to impinge on his charmed life and Yuji starts to reassess his life.
From the outset, he’s hardly a sympathetic character. Too many readers will have known (or been) that pretentious, self-absorbed youth and experienced the depths of their selfishness and immaturity. But Miller isn’t content to leave Yuji where he stands. In classic bildungsroman tradition, Yuji’s world is shaken and he is required to rebuild it. It’s all about the getting of wisdom and maturity.
The impetus for much of this change comes in the form of Yuji’s French teacher Monsieur Feneon’s young daughter Alissa. Not only is Alissa the spirited heroine who turns Yuji’s life upside down, she is almost his reflection. Yuji sees himself as a sophisticated European in a Japanese skin. Alissa sees herself as more Asian than French, embracing Japanese culture and style with a relish that confuses many of the locals.
In Yuji’s case, his self-perception is slightly absurd, given the fact that he has never left the country at age 25 and only tastes wine for the first time under Alissa’s tutelage. Alissa’s sense of cultural misplacement is more justified, as she was born and raised in Asia. Yet Yuji is disappointed by this girl who fails to live up to his expectations of Europeans. While Alissa is embracing a part of her cultural upbringing, Yuji is mostly looking for exoticism.
Perhaps this is how Miller defuses the cries of “orientalism”: by showing the yearning for the other that occurs in so many cultures. For all the readers who pick up One Morning Like A Bird to experience the exotica of Japan, there will be several who will recognise themselves in Yuji’s naïve love of all things French.
One Morning Like A Bird evokes the awkwardness of in-betweens: between East and West, between youth and maturity, between war and peace. Yuji’s decisions are not always right or even admirable, but many of us can understand the difficulty in finding our own frame of reference, our place in the world.
Appropriately, the stylistic and thematic reference points to this book are slightly “western” Japanese writers like the Catholic Shusaku Endo and the Francophile existentialist Kenzaburo Oe. Their reflections on Japanese identity are never undertaken in isolation from the world—they are informed by a strong awareness of the world beyond their islands.
Within English-language fiction, the work of Kazuo Ishiguro also comes to mind. As a Japanese-born Englishman, Ishiguro is another writer-between-worlds. His first two novels, A Pale View of Hills and An Artist of the Floating World, dealt with Japanese subjects, but his subsequent work has mostly centred on English protagonists. Remarkably, Ishiguro’s style and characterisation, so full of repression and self-deception, work just as effectively in either context.
It’s not surprising that we see something similar in Miller’s writing on Japan. As an Englishman, he would be aware of the reliance on formality and decorum that can be found in both cultures, particularly in past eras. Like Ishiguro, he’s also attuned to the subtleties, so his Japanese characters never sound or feel like Englishmen in Japanese attire. It’s a notable achievement.
Miller’s depiction of a Japanese world that largely passed with the American occupation is vivid and enticing. To Western readers, the Japanese literary sensibility is exemplified by the haiku, the bare-boned, three-line poem that expresses so much in 17 syllables. Andrew Miller’s One Morning Like A Bird matches this tradition in economy and impact. Unlike Yuji’s remaindered poetry volumes, this is a work that should find a devoted audience.