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Tuesday, Feb. 29, 2000

Staying on the beaten track in darkest Saitama


By ELIZABETH WARD
Staff writer
THE CITY OF YES, by Peter Oliva. Toronto, Canada: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1999; 336 pp., $21.99.

Like many another young, sensitive, well-intentioned foreigner, Canadian-born Peter Oliva -- or his protagonist -- came to Japan for a year and was so bowled over by the place that he felt the world could hardly go on if it didn't hear what happened to him here and how he felt about it.

Most temporary residents restrict their wide-eyed observations and reflections to phone calls and e-mails home or the occasional letter to the newspaper. Some, however, commit them to memoirs -- the genre bulges with foreigners' tales of their experiences in Japan as potters, salarymen, business executives, Zen novices, English teachers, art dealers, "gaijin" spouses and parents, and much else -- and a few cleverly wrap their recycled perceptions in the bright new "furoshiki" of fiction.

We are given a blend of the two in "The City of Yes," a book that reads in part like a series of solemn extracts from a newcomer's journal, but which Oliva insists in an afterword is fiction.

"All the characters," he says, "are imaginary, except for Ranald MacDonald" -- a Canadian sailor who washed up on a Japanese beach in the mid-19th century, only to be imprisoned, first in Hokkaido and later in Nagasaki, and whose experiences Oliva offers as an illuminating parallel to his own (sorry, his protagonist's).

In that case, one can only say that in baking this particular fictional loaf, he forgot to throw in the yeast of imagination that the word "imaginary" implies. Most of the characters, including the Japanese ones, sound astonishingly like the protagonist. Who would have thought there were so many budding poets and philosophers walking around in Saitama Prefecture?

He also forgot to throw in a plot. As it is, the entire narrative action of "The City of Yes" can be summed up thus: My year in rural Japan teaching English, learning the mysterious Japanese language, meeting some Japanese people (including the beautiful, enigmatic Hiroko), observing quaint Japanese customs ("As usual, the cars were driving on the left-hand side of the road . . .") and trying to come up with an overarching metaphor to tie all my reactions together with.

This calendar-based nonplot is signaled early on when the narrator kicks off his travelogue with a blow-by-blow account of his plane trip to Japan on Aeroflot, including colorful anecdotes about the other passengers. It comes as no surprise when he wraps it up with a vignette of his return flight to Canada a year later, during which he alertly notices how funny all the other foreigners look.

In between, he manages to encounter and recycle nearly every known cliche and stereotype of the foreigner's-eye view of Japan since Basil Hall Chamberlain. "Japlish" (a whole page of quotes from his students' pencil cases; Creap; Pocari Sweat). Hilarious "hiragana" teacher ("Ka, Ki, Ku, Ke . . . Koh!"). The mishmash that is Christmas in Japan. The deep psychological significance of "meishi." Marlboro girls in Akihabara ("Electric Town"!). Silly TV shows. Insect collectors. Cement. Charming Japanese folk tales. Customs officials at Narita scraping pubic hair off photographs. Rush hour on the Tokyo subway. Hard-to-get Japanese girls. And on and on.

It is not that the narrator does Japan the discourtesy of mocking these things. What makes the heart sink is, first, Oliva's failure to realize that the territory is so well-trodden, and second, his compulsion to pack everything in whether it is dramatically justified or not. Even if it is all simply supposed to evoke the narrator's sense of simultaneous bewilderment, amusement and excitement, the reader is subjected far too often to the grating present tense of the know-it-all traveler:

"Tokyo is full of such Western apparitions," the narrator will suddenly intone. "On weekends, James Dean look-alikes can be found in Harajuku, combing their hair or dancing to rockabilly that jumps out of fridge-sized stereos."

Who is he talking to when he breaks out of character like this? Whoever it is, the result isn't fiction, literary or otherwise; it's second-rate Lonely Planet.

More potentially interesting is the narrator's yearlong quest to interweave his own story with that of the aforementioned shipwrecked Canadian adventurer, inspired by a Japanese friend's remark that MacDonald was "someone who, long, long ago, was searching for his own mystical Japan."

The narrator takes to heart "the Japanese ideal of the traveler who aims to repeat the journey of those who have gone before him" and attempts to superimpose MacDonald's journey upon his own, as a way of suffusing his experiences with meaning.

(For one thing, we are told that the book's title alludes partly to the old name for Hokkaido, "Yesso," where MacDonald washed ashore, and partly to a poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko that invokes a traveler rushing "like a train" between "the city of Yes and the city of No": Yes, the narrator helpfully concludes, has become a place "where stories come and go, unfettered by date or proper names.")

The problem, of course, is that despite all this cleverness the narrator's easy contemporary journey has next to nothing in common with the brave and unfortunate MacDonald's, so it is all a bit of a self-indulgent stretch.

In the end, however, he seizes on the metaphor of imprisonment: MacDonald was literally imprisoned; the narrator, before his year was up, also "began to think of Japan as an affectionate prison," "a supple cage," in which he was triply cut off from the people by language, history and custom.

In support of this theme (and presumably also the theme of his unsatisfactory romance with Hiroko), he includes a long aside on his experience of keeping a cage full of praying mantises. In the end, his prized female mates with a newly arrived male and then decapitates and eats him.

But, as with the MacDonald parallel, the image ultimately fails to convince. There are different kinds of imprisonment, but not all of them are arduous, most are not related to other kinds, and some are even essentially meaningless, as "The City of Yes" unfortunately reminds us. The book tells us little about the Japanese, and what it tells us about Canadians suggests that Hiroko was probably a smart girl.



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