The girl on the front is in perfect silhouette. Turn to the back of the novel, however, and you will find her image blurred. Fading. Disappearing for an unknown reason into an unknown place…
As so often happens with me when I conclude a work of Japanese literature, I am completely entranced by the mood. Caught up in the poetic imagery, the sensation of being there with the characters, living through their actions and experiencing their emotions. But, I don’t know how to write about it exactly, how to capture the aura the author has created.
So it is with Yamada’s novel, Strangers. Hideo tells his story from the first person narrative, unfolding the events as they have occurred to him until its shocking conclusion. His parents died when he was twelve, and to compound his loneliness we find he has asked his wife for a divorce to which she has agreed since their marriage had become little more than indifference. “The truth was, she too felt an emptiness in our marriage, and once she had had sometime to think about it, she wholeheartedly embraced the idea of divorce. We did hit some rough spots on the way to the financial settlement, but no one would have termed the divorce a messy one. At the very least, compared to muddling on endlessly in a lifeless marriage, donning the same old benign faces day in and day out as we went about our lives together but apart, the decisive action had awakened in me a whole new zest for life.”
One night, he wanders into the Asakusa Variety Hall and notices a man resembling his father. More than resembling his father, this man is eerily like his father in every way. Hideo follows him and finds himself at an apartment with his mother and father who were exactly the same age they were when they died, although Hideo himself is now in his late forties. He feels energized by their company, longs for further communication together, and returns several times to feel the comfort one’s parents can give. “Don’t be a stranger,” they tell him when they bid him farewell at the end of their evenings.
At the same time, he becomes involved with his neighbor, Kei, who has asked him to share a bottle of champagne with him one evening. Although he turned her away, upset at the news that his wife is being courted by one of his friends, Kei and Hideo eventually become quite close. Except that she will not let him see her torso unsheathed, nor let him touch it. Apparently, she is self-conscious about a terrible burn which has left her disfigured.
Hideo’s world becomes centered around the relationship he has with his parents and with his new love. He is shocked when she tells him that he looks so very tired, so drawn, so aged. How can this be, he wonders, when he has never felt stronger in his life? When he looks at his hands, they appear completely normal to him. When he looks in the mirror, he sees himself as he has always been.
But what is real? Who is real? What does he learn from those he loves, or from those who love him? This is the central theme of the novel, toward which we are catapulted from the beginning to the end…an unnerving conclusion to Hideo, as well as ourselves. With his novel Strangers, Yamada brilliantly examines one’s sources of comfort. Of love. And the effect our lives have on one another.