A Quiet Place is the first English version of Kihanakatta Basho, originally published in Japan in 1975. Very little else of Seicho Matsumoto’s prolific output has been translated into English. However, he was one of Japan’s best-selling and highest-paid authors from the 1960s until to his death in 1992 and is considered to have written the finest Japanese mystery novels of the 20th century. His first detective novel, Points and Lines, sold over a million copies in Japan, while he’s best known in the UK for the 1989 Inspector Imanishi Investigates, which saw almost 4 million sales.
Reading A Quiet Place, it’s not hard to see why he was (and remains) so popular. The book is a great example of his fluidity of style, his social criticism, his description of Japanese social customs and his psychological insight. It also pushes the art of the mystery story to new dimensions, turning many of its commonly accepted tropes on their heads.
While on a business trip to Kobe, Tsuneo Asai receives the news that his wife Eiko has died of a heart attack. He isn’t totally surprised; after all, Eiko had a heart condition and was under doctor’s orders that the slightest exertion could cause her trouble. But the circumstances of her demise leave Asai, a softly-spoken government bureaucrat, perplexed. How did it come about that his wife – who was shy and withdrawn, and only left their house twice a week to go to haiku meetings – ended up dead in a small shop in a shady Tokyo neighbourhood? When Asai goes to apologize to the boutique owner for the trouble caused by his wife’s death he discovers that Eiko led a double life. Her trips out of the house weren’t just for haiku research after all, but rather to visit her lover. And it’s Asai’s steady commitment to unravel this most domestic of mysteries that forms the bulk of the plot.
However, for me the mystery aspect almost took a back seat to the careful portrait Matsumoto creates of contemporary Japanese society –and the central couple’s marriage. Almost totally self-absorbed, our protagonist is so distant from his wife that he believes her when she says she can’t have sex due to her heart condition. It’s clear that he sees his wife as boring: “she’d always seemed to him to have a rather bland personality” and so preoccupied by her haiku club that she’s “completely unconcerned with Asai’s career advancement.” Fittingly, the couple met through a matchmaker. It seems to be an altogether dry, perfunctory relationship, each maintaining their own completely separate life.
Where Eiko has her friends and haiku research, Asai has his career. A mid-ranking civil servant, he is constantly imagining how others perceive his rank of Second Section Chief in the Department of Staple Foods in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. He always remains conscious that he came from a poor family and is not on the civil service career track, but seemingly can’t help his self-importance. Towards the end of the story, a difficulty arises for him which, to my mind, would have been instantly solved if he had just quit his job – but of course, in an age when Japanese men were expected to graduate university and immediately take up positions with companies from which they would not budge until retirement, this doesn’t even register as an option. Other aspects of Japanese society are examined – the newly popular love hotels where Asai goes to seek evidence of his wife’s affair; the increasing interest in American culture; excessive deference to superiors; and, most of all, the almost overwhelming desire not to give offence.
Think of the Slow Food movement in the culinary world and of the magnificently patient films of Ozu, Mizogushi and Kurasawa. Likewise, A Quiet Place is less concerned about rapid-fire plot twists than about portraying a couple’s life, the devastating consequences of loss of face in a Japanese company, and about how excessive politeness can lead to jail. Plot points are dwelled on rather than brushed over – there’s no real connect-the-dots mystery to be solved, just a slow, patient unfurling. A traditional telling of this plot might, perhaps, be written from the point of view of the private detective Asai hires to gather information about his wife’s secret life. Instead, we are presented with dry, factual reports they send to Asai, who adds them to his own ponderings and assumptions about Eiko. Those with an interest in Japanese culture and society will lap this up, as will anyone looking for a stylish, understated mystery that goes a little further than your average whodunit.
A Quiet Place is published 9 June by Bitter Lemon Press
Post by Clara
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