Andrew Miller’s novels can be read as portraits of individuals coming to a sort of reckoning with themselves. A discovery that they might be someone they thought they were not, or something they hoped they would not be. In his debut, Ingenious Pain, an Eighteenth Century English doctor unable to feel physical pain learns what it is to have feelings, of all sorts, to which he though he was immune. A country engineer responsible for clearing the fetid cemetery of Les Innocents in pre-revolutionary Paris in Pure may be in far over his head, both professionally and personally.
At the opening of One Morning Like a Bird (2008) we meet Yuji Takano, in his mid-twenties. In prose as clear and sparkling as a Hiroshige print, but sometimes in the paler more lifeless colours found in the same are, we follow Yuji around the Tokyo of the early 1940s. A Tokyo where ‘snow lies like laundry in the arms of the persimmon tree’ in winter and in spring a breeze moves ‘the whole head of a tree like a single flower.’ The Sino-Japanese war rumbles away yet he lives a cosseted life in his family’s house. He is a published poet, although his minor work, Electric Dragonfly, has sold poorly and his muse has dried up. Our first encounter with him finds him alone reading, not a Japanese novel, but André Gide. When his grandfather arrives it’s downstairs for a traditional Japanese bath, sake, tofu, pickles and rice.
This tug and pull of east and west permeates the novel and is the source of much pleasure, and much confusion, for our hero. He enjoys Western literature and his hero is Arthur Rimbaud, yet in a period of serious illness his thoughts are of the death poems of Bashō.
We mainly follow Yuki and his friends as they mooch around an increasingly oppressive Tokyo. They meet each other in bathhouses, drink beer and sake, eat noodles in cheap all night bars. They are also members of the ‘French Club’, paying visits to the house of a French silk merchant, M. Feneon, and his crippled daughter, Alissa. Here they speak in French, discuss philosophical questions such as which art form is the most sublime, drink eau de vie, listen to Chopin and watch western films: Chaplin, Renoir, The Thief of Baghdad. Alissa is fascinated by Japanese culture and Miller is playing on the lazy attitude of the Orient as exotic and mysterious as demonstrated by so many in the west. Yuji cannot understand her, ‘What is her interest in classical dance…Can she not be satisfied with Molière and waltzes?’ Yuji has feelings for his Japanese next door neighbour, Kyoko, but is increasingly drawn to Alissa.
‘In the West you have music. Here we have twanging,’ says Oki, one of Yuji’s friends. There is a desire to put down Japan, its ‘disinterred hostility to the world beyond the black lines of the coasts,’ the people’s living among ‘what is fragile and evanescent.’ When Alissa invites Yuji to the kabuki he is horrified and plans to renege on his acceptance with the cynical thought that Alissa ‘who doubtless subscribes to the curious Western theory of Oriental inscrutability, might enjoy a little demonstration of it. Yet, reminded of a childhood theatre trip with his mother, finds the ‘buffoonery are no longer quaintly antique but a language profound and perfectly evolved’ and gives himself to the performance in ecstasy. As the novel progresses we see him express grudging admiration for a Japanese pulp writer and enjoying the feel of a kimono.
All of this happens against a backdrop of advancing militarisation and increasingly febrile nationalistic sentiment. Yuji is kept from the army by the testimony of a family friend, Dr Kushida, who talks up a medical complaint. An elderly next door neighbour whose granddaughter’s husband is away fighting takes umbrage at Yuji’s exemption, “But even a cripple is more use than you! Do the Takano’s think they can leave others to do their suffering for them?” As the Sino-Japanese war intensifies, and the other war looms more and more balefully, everyone knows that this dodging will eventually come to an end. Kushida begins to notice Yuji’s improved appetite, and Yuji knows all too well what the doctor is really saying.
With his allowance cut off, Yuji must put thoughts of poetry on hold, scrapping around for a living by writing articles and later as the driver for a dealer in black market goods. By Yuji’s age, Rimbaud had produced his entire poetic output to concentrate on his commercial activities, and there perhaps lies a less artistic motive for Yuji’s idolatry.
It was once written of Miller that his works has a preoccupation with ’emotional vacuums,’ and the Tenako household is no exception. His mother suffers from an unnamed chronic illness which confines her to her room, guarded ferociously by the intimidating housekeeper, Haruyo, of whom Yuji is terrified, with her “slab face” and “unseemly vivid bulk.” The family were caught up in the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 in which they lost another son, Ryuchi. A photograph of him sits in his mother’s room which Yuji can barely look at, “such is the weight of judgement in those twelve-year-old eyes.” The brother is rarely mentioned, particularly by the perfunctory father, for whom too much time has passed: “Again. they have come to the edge of a conversation, that long-postponed confessing that would begin – and either could begin it – with the word ‘After Ryuchi…'”
The interest in Yuji’s attempt to be Japan’s answer to Rimbaud, an Oriental flâneur, began to wane, so it is nice when Miller has him confronted with a change in circumstance that forces him to grow up and rethink who he is. It’s one of the obvious things that would suddenly throw a young unattached man into crisis, but it does produce some lovely passages. Yuji may not exactly discover who he is, nor if he is truly something he thought he wasn’t, but for him to utter “I’m from Tokyo,” no matter how ambiguous it may be read, is not something one would expect of the Rimbaud loving dilettante from the beginning of the book.