Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Novels, memoirs and Pico Iyer in Japan

I finally started reading Pico Iyer's THE LADY AND THE MONK.  Despite my having lived in Japan for two years plus a summer, I put off reading this story set in Japan because I thought it was a novel and some critic I read (maybe just an Amazon reader) said that Iyer hadn't lived in Japan long enough to really understand it. 

But when I actually got the book in my hands, I found that it was not a novel but a memoir.  And that makes all the difference.  So I'm asking myself why it would be OK to me if someone misrepresented Japan in a memoir but not in a novel.

I think it's because if I read a novel, I know the characters and plot are more or less made up, but I expect the setting to be realistic (unless it is fantasy, of course).  If a novel takes place in a specifically named location, I expect that the manners, the relationships between the sexes, the street scenes, etc., to be realistically drawn.  I expect even that, through reading a fictional story about a place, I will learn something about it I didn't know before .  The author, in a sense, sets himself or herself up as the authority whom I expect to give me a trustworthy vision of what life is like in that place. 

Strangely, I don't have those expectations of a memoir writer.  I expect that a writer, when using his own voice, is providing a personal point of view.  I allow that the writer had such and so experience in a given place, and that others who go there might have a very different experience and point of view.  The author, in that instance, is the authority only for his own experience.  So even if a given writer's experience in Japan is different from mine -- and from what I've read so far, Iyer's experience, especially in Zen temples, is very different -- I cannot even call it "misrepresentation" because it isn't supposed to be a general portrayal of "how things are."

Iyer's memoir is vague about the time it takes place, but it feels like the 1980s.  At the beginning of Chapter 4, Iyer says that he moved into a guesthouse in Kyoto named I.S.E. -- and suddenly, I am there -- because in fact, I myself lived during the summer of 1984 in that very guesthouse!  Wouldn't it be a remarkable to learn these several decades later that I, unknowingly, once had Pico Iyer for a housemate?

So the streets he describes in this chapter are the same streets I walked along.  I remember especially my first encounter with a talking vending machine where, parched, I made my purchase of a can of beer after coming home late on a stifling summer evening from teaching English in Osaka.  Domo Arigato Gozaimasen -- "Thank you very much!" -- the machine said after I made my purchase. These days it is commonplace for machines to talk to us, but I remember how startled I was that first evening when, breaking the silence of the night, the machine offered its appreciation of my patronage!

Through reading Iyer's account of these streets, though, I also realize how very much I failed to notice.  Iyer has eyes to see and the words to describe what he sees.  And it doesn't matter if the eyes he sees through are different from those of someone else -- certainly they are different from a Japanese but also from other foreigners -- because a memoir is meant to be specific to the writer -- at the same time as it lets us into a world we can now share. 

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