Spring Garden (2014): Tomoka Shibasaki

★★★

You may remember that I have a vaguely vexed relationship with Japanese literature. While I’m fascinated by the culture it describes, I often have difficulty getting into the writing itself, which, at least in English translation, can feel strangely detached or repressed. However, I’m determined to keep at it and, along the way, I’ve found a few books that I’ve enjoyed unconditionally, like the detective novels of Seishi Yokomizo. Spring Garden, which originally caught my attention by virtue of its gorgeous cover, has been on my shelves for a while: now, as the sun grows stronger and the trees burst into blossom, it seems the right time to read it. It falls into the category of ‘evocative but slightly frustrating’: a tale of two lonely people who bond over an old photo-book that records the sky-blue house next door to their block of flats. It’s less a story than a glimpse into someone else’s life – a chance to walk alongside them for a while, without the promise of explanation or catharsis – and it has a bittersweetly nostalgic feel, as Shibasaki explores notions of loss, change and stasis in a world that’s moving too fast.

Taro is one of the few remaining residents at View Palace Saeki III, an old block of flats destined for redevelopment in a couple of years. Most of his neighbours have already moved out, but Taro clings on, mainly because he’s a placid person and doesn’t really like change: he can’t quite summon up the motivation to start looking for another flat. Only two other residents remain: one elderly woman who lives in the Snake Flat (the flats don’t have numbers, but are each named for an animal of the Chinese zodiac) and the younger woman in the Dragon Flat. Taro is on polite terms with Mrs Snake (as he calls her), and it’s through her that he finally gets to meet the girl in the Dragon Flat, whom he has previously seen out on her balcony, assiduously studying the neighbouring house. It turns out that Nishi (her name) is slightly obsessed with the house next door, a beautiful sky-blue building with a hodge-podge of features from different architectural traditions. Some years ago, the house was the subject of a photo-book made by the artistic young couple who lived there at the time. As a schoolgirl, Nishi pored over the pages, growing to love the elegant rooms, and admiring the young couple’s appealingly bohemian, carefree lifestyle. Now she lives right next door to the house, and she dreams of finally being able to step inside and see the rooms that have fixed themselves in her imagination.

Nishi is clinging to a memory of the house that no longer survives in reality. That struggle to let go of the past seems, to me, to be an overriding theme here: it’s healthier all round, Shibasaki suggests, for us to accept the inevitability of change and move with it. While Nishi dreams of a house that no longer exists in the same form, Taro is struggling to come to terms with the recent death of his father. A pestle-and-mortar, used in his father’s funeral rites, has come to represent his father’s absence in a painfully concrete form, and yet Taro can’t quite summon up the energy to move it, clean it, or dispose of it. Indeed, he finds it difficult to accept any kind of change, whether it’s his father’s passing, the approaching demolition of his block of flats, or even a colleague’s change of name on getting married. Taro isn’t stuck in the past, exactly, but he doesn’t move on from it easily, unless pushed. He was married, briefly, but when he got divorced three years ago – presumably not his decision – he also gave up his more sociable former job as a hairdresser. Now he has become used to a life defined by loneliness and loss, which contains little human contact apart from his daily commute to the office: a kind of atomisation that’s quite common in the Japanese novels that I’ve read. After years of gradually retreating into himself, his meeting with Nishi forces him into a new friendship. For a while, at least, he has a reason to break away from his daily routine and explore a little, whether that’s by taking a different route to work, visiting a new restaurant, or learning more about the sky-blue house.

Architecture and its transformation or demolition seems to play a key role here, not just in the form of the sky-blue house itself, but also in Taro’s wider environment. He’s amazed by the speed with which his neighbourhood changes, with buildings being refurbished, knocked down, razed and rebuilt. Large old houses, typical of the leafier parts of Tokyo, are being replaced by blocks of flats: the urban sprawl slowly colonising areas which were once a little greener, a little softer on the soul. I read somewhere (and correct me if I’m wrong) that buildings in Tokyo are often built with a limited lifespan, of around twenty or thirty years, with the expectation that they’ll then be knocked down and replaced with something new. Nothing is built with the intention that it will last. If that’s true, it’s an interesting choice for a culture which is also very attached to its past and its traditions. Taro seems to be a walking embodiment of the contradictions implicit in the practice. As he watches his neighbourhood changing around him, and thinks back to his childhood home (now gone), and thinks about the impending reconstruction of his flat, he seems to be digging in his heels against the flow of history. Perhaps this is what’s stopping Taro really fulfilling his potential? Perhaps, if he could learn to accept change with grace, as he accepts and enjoys the changing seasons in next-door’s garden, he might be happier?

That’s the lesson that I drew from this short, pleasing but bewildering little novella, but I have absolutely no confidence that it’s the right one. Shibasaki, like many other Japanese authors, seems to report her story with an almost deferential distance from her characters’ inner emotions, and that sense of gentle otherness has been deftly captured in the translation by Polly Barton. We try to come close to these characters, but they politely evade us, like fascinating people glimpsed on the bus for a few minutes, with no further context to their lives. As a reader, my experience of a story like this is intellectual rather than emotional – or, if emotions exist, they are faintly forlorn and impersonal, as might be conjured up by an image of fallen leaves blowing in the wind.

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