One Morning Like A Bird by Andrew Miller
|One Morning Like A Bird by Andrew Miller|
|Genre: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: A beautifully told portrait of life and love and conflicts of duty in the months before Japan fully enters into the Second World War.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 384||Date: July 2009|
Tokyo in 1940 is a place that we British tend not to give a great deal of thought to. Japan entered the war, we say, with the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, completely forgetting that Japan, like most of the rest of the world, was already a country at war. She had been fighting in China since 1937 and was making in-roads into European colonial territory in the area as well.
Being a young man in Tokyo in 1940, probably felt a bit like being a young man in America in the late 1960s: trying to live a life that you know is on the brink of being taken out of your control. A foreign war is easy to ignore, except for the ever-present threat of your call-up papers.
The thing about ever-present threats is the human ability to shift them aside in favour of the more palatable aspects of life here and now, worrying only when the issue is forced upon you.
Miller's young man is in precisely that position. Yuji Takano lives a sheltered life. He is a poet, a published poet no less – though copies of his one volume lurk in the depths of the remaindered sections of the local market. Meanwhile, he struggles on, living off his allowance from his father and the occasional boost from degrading journalistic hack-work.
The family are heading for hard times however. Father published an ill-advised piece of academia over a decade ago, read by virtually no-one at the time and understood by even fewer, which in these dangerous times has been unearthed and criticised as an attack upon the Emperor. Such blasphemy cannot be allowed within the ranks of even minor government functionaries. Father is now surplus to requirements. Economies must be made and Yuji's allowance is high on the list.
The war in China and the prospect of call-up can wait. Money is the immediate concern.
Even that however is put to one side as the young man continues his visits with his friends to the noodle cafés, the bars and the bath houses, and picnics to see the cherry blossom, and above all to their beloved French Club.
Emile Feneon is a French émigré by way of Saigon, with a beautiful but limping daughter. He has acquired a collection of young men who visit the house to watch old films projected onto a bedsheet, speak French to each other, ponder whether the rumours of a letter from Rimbaud are really true and consider the important issues of the day. That their philosophising should lapse from serious consideration of whether the greatest of the arts is music or dance or architecture to agreeing that the deciding factor should be the views of the one who knows how to make chocolate cake is entirely in keeping with the times (at least as we Western readers of P G Wodehouse and Agatha Christie have been conditioned to think of them).
The mood is changing however. The unconscripted find themselves increasingly condemned for not having volunteered, and foreigners fall under increasing suspicion as spies or worse. The returning wounded underscore the sacrifices being made, and not.
For Yuji all of this begins to matter very much as he finds himself unexpectedly involved with Feneon's daughter and subject to conflicting loyalties and inexplicable emotions. For a poet, it has to be said that Yuji is a little naïve.
Despite the setting, One Morning… is not a novel of high drama. It is a bittersweet exploration of what it is to be young and (yes) naïve. Its great strength is as a portrait of a place and time. It encapsulates the insularity of a life that is lived within paper walls and under the eyes of all, while the world at large is intent upon destruction.
It speaks of the lure of the exotic. Whilst French-raised Alissa delights in all things Japanese, the young Tokyo students lament the fact that their city isn't more like New York and wonder whether another earthquake might be the answer.
And of the lure of the past. Grandfather painstakingly rebuilding the pre-quake city in model scale. Mother unendingly lamenting the lost son, at the expense of the surviving one.
It speaks of the absence of perfection. And the death of poetry.
In a novel that is neither plot nor character driven, only the quality of the writing can hold you, the tiny insights, the turn of phrase. This is Miller's gift – for his work it is not the case that (as he says) when the story has been read the book is empty, used up. One Morning Like a Bird remains miraculously full, like a painting or a tapestry, or a long poem of a life.
A pure pleasure.
Further reading suggestion: For modern-day insights into Japanese culture try Japan Through The Looking Glass by Alan Macfarlane; to stay with the lyrical and poetic take on things generally Oriental, I’d recommend Peony in Love by Lisa See.
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