This short novel in three parts comes with high praise from Nobel Prize winner Oe Kenzaburo: “Have we failed to catch the calm but earnest tone that echoes like music through Levy Hideo’s prose? With his unique literary voice, this writer clearly represents a new kind of novelist for Japanese literature….”
Ian Hideo Levy, writing as Levy Hideo, is the first white American to write a novel in Japanese. Published in Japan in 1992, his novel was translated by Christopher S. Scott in 2011. Hideo was born in 1950 to a Jewish father and a Polish mother in Berkeley, California. He grew up in the United States, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan where he went to live with his father in the American consulate in Yokohama when he was 17. He went to Princeton, earned a doctorate there, and joined the faculty as an assistant professor of Japanese literature when he was 28.
Start with the title, A Room Where the Star Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard (Columbia University Press, 115 pages). The Japanese title is Seijoki no kikoenai heya (星条旗の聞こえない部屋). “Heya” is “room”; “kikoenai” is “cannot be heard”; and I had to look up “seijoki” which means “the Star Spangled Banner.” (I was impressed that Japanese has one word for our national flag.) So the English title is about as literal as you can get.
The story is set in 1967, a time of student protests against the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, and 17-year-old Ben Isaac is living in the Yokohama consulate with his strict father, Chinese step-mother, and 4-year-old half-brother. He wants to learn Japanese and begins classes at W University. Ben becomes consumed by the language, the difference between the grammar and vocabulary he’s taught in class and what he learns on the street, the difficulties with reading Japanese, and the attitudes of the Japanese he meets toward this blond, white American boy.
He is befriended by a slightly older W University student, Ando, who knows only enough English to pass his college entrance exam. Ando, unlike the patronizing members of university’s English Conversation Club, is not interested in learning more. As he tell Ben, “This is Japan. Speak Japanese.”
Ben runs away from home to crash in Ando’s small student room, eventually burns his identity card (which means that in the eyes of official Japan, he has no identity), and in the novel’s third section finds work as a waiter in a Shinjuku restaurant. He is only able to do this because Ando is willing to act as his shoshonin—someone who guarantees, a sponsor.
Often I can read “through” a translation to sense what the original must be like, and often reading an English translation of a Japanese novel feels as though one is reading through a thin gauze. I did not have that sensation, however, reading Scott’s translation, perhaps because the original is more direct and straightforward than most Japanese writers. The novel is told from Ben’s point of view, so we have access to his thoughts and his perceptions but to no one else’s. This is Ben’s story; we are meant to sympathize with and understand him, and we do.
As Scott says in his thought-provoking translator’s introduction, “…Levy’s work is about the struggle or productive tension between writing in Japanese and not being Japanese, or the dilemma of being a writer of Japanese but not a Japanese writer…. ” Ben’s father makes a familiar point when he tells Ben, “No matter how much you learn to speak their language, in their eyes you’ll always be like me: a dumb gaijin who can’t speak properly and never wanted to. Even if you go to the plaza in front of the Imperial Palace and scream ‘Long live the Emperor!’ in perfect Japanese and slit your stomach open, you’ll never be one of them.”
Perhaps not, and that tension between what Ben rejects—the America of his counsel father and his divorced and troubled mother—and what he wants—immersion in an entirely different language and culture—give the novel its power.
–Wally Wood, author of Getting Oriented: A Novel About Japan
…Ben called to mind the different words he used for himself: the “I” and “me” he had been using since childhood, the watakushi and boku he learned when he started studying Japanese at age seventeen, and the ore he started using after he met Ando. None of them seemed to fit the fractured face he saw in the mirror. He moved slightly, and a thin ray of light shot through the dust-billed air and glimmered across the broken glass.Where, Father, where?
He felt himself being drawn to a place somewhere beyond the distorted light. However, the more he peered at his reflection in the glass, the more he realized that behind every name he used for himself was nothing but emptiness. He became frightened. He looked away and hurried toward the front door…. —p11
…But in the ten or so hour since he had left his father’s house, Ben suddenly realized, English had been erased from his mind. In the gray November morning air, neon signs were flashing on and off, generating heat. He walked past a pachinko parlor named Peace and a pornographic theater named International, through a world of pink, purple, and silvery temptations that were all but illegible to his tired blue-gray eyes. Passing a used bookstore with the manga garo displayed out front, he approached a Chinese restaurant spewing yellow steam from the cracks between its vermilion-lacquered doors. From the side street he had just come down to the intersection up ahead, and from the stairs hidden behind doors made of glass, wood, and iron, snippets of music and conversation flowed together, intermingling on the patchwork of rough-hewn paving stones at his feet. From inside one of the shops, a husky voice belted out a tune—this one he could understand:
My dear, I learned it all from you:
Drinking and smoking, and lying too. —p52