the short story project


Volker Zastrow | from:German

A Protracted Evening. The Art of the Japanese Writer Yasushi Inoue

Translated by : Imogen Taylor

Image: Yohey Horishita

Introduction by David Wagner

"A Protracted Evening" has remained with me ever since I first read the story in the journal Merkur. Year after year, I have continued to think of it. When I looked it out recently, I was amazed that nineteen years had passed since it was first published. Back then, in February 1998, I was about as old as the young woman in the story who blackmails herself a publication by bursting into tears. Today I’m older than the nearly forty-year-old narrator – and am familiar with the difficulties of private life with a woman and an ex-wife and a child. I could hardly help noticing as I read it that, with the passage of time, I had drifted over onto the other side of the story. But is "A Protracted Evening" even a story at all? Or is it, as the narrator claims, an essay – an essay, which if the subtitle is to be believed, is about "The Art of the Japanese Writer Yasushi Inoue"? Ah, dear reader, you must make up your own mind. Just read the story. And then read Inoue. It’s worth it.

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I owe my acquaintance with the works of the Japanese writer Yasushi Inoue to a young colleague with whom I once spent a long and arduous evening. At the time I had been living apart from my wife and son for some months, and taken a room in a hotel high up in the hills of the Taunus. The blame for the separation lay solely with my wife, who had been grumbling about me without let-up for as long as I could remember. Also, my mistress had larger breasts. I should add, though, that she lived a few hundred kilometres away, in Bremen. This gave me ample time and reason to reflect on all manner of things – women, for example.

On the morning of the day in question, the young colleague who was to introduce me to Inoue appeared in my office in the editorial department, and we talked about a piece she had written for the newspaper. She had toiled particularly hard over the first sentence; it sounded brilliant, but proved on closer inspection to be hollow. In other respects, too, the manuscript was unsuccessful, for reasons not confined, but particularly common to the newly graduated. The author didn’t really know what she wanted to say, but she had a very precise idea of how she wanted to appear in the text, and this had influenced the wording, syntax, and substance of her manuscript throughout. Perhaps she was only trying to avoid exposing herself, but the result was the same, and my job was to deal with effects, not causes.

When I had shown my young colleague that her text would lose nothing if that laboriously contrived opening sentence were simply cut, and pointed out a few further shortcomings to her, finally advising her to regard the whole thing as a failed experiment and start afresh, she burst into tears. Something similar had happened to me once before, some years back. A colleague of mine had found it hard to accept that, despite being younger, I was suddenly the one giving instructions, and – out of resentment, I suppose – had met all my requests with stalling tactics. Her sobs had rendered me speechless. It had only been the formatting of certain memos that was at issue, but the sight of the narrow, quaking shoulders of this woman, who had turned her back on me as if to hide her tears, made me feel hard-hearted and callous, and I made a timid attempt to comfort her. Later I would realise that it had all been a ploy on her part to get her own way.

This time, then, I remained unfazed by my young colleague’s tears. I assumed she was crying in an attempt to get me to print the manuscript, and indeed, as soon as I agreed to send her text to the typesetter, her tears dried up and a relieved, if rather coy smile appeared on her face. I was, of course, annoyed at the insidious attack on my peace of mind, but I consoled myself with the thought that suitable punishment would not be long in coming now that the banal text was to be published in a major newspaper.

Thus satisfaction was restored on both sides, and some innocuous small talk was made, in the course of which I came up with the idea that we might continue it that evening. The thought of returning to my room on the other side of the hill did not appeal; equally unalluring was the prospect of yet another evening sitting in my office until all hours, allowing myself to be oppressed by maudlin thoughts of my near and yet hopelessly distant home, where I knew my distraught wife and bereft child to be.

So I asked my young colleague out to dinner. It had been some time since I last spent an evening with a woman of twenty-five. I reckoned I still had a pretty good idea of what I’d felt and thought at that age and how I’d perceived myself, but not quite good enough to be able to imagine exactly what I would find in my thirteen-years-younger self if I were to meet him now that I was pushing forty. Though that was certainly impossible, perhaps I would at least manage to get an insight into the young woman and, by this somewhat circuitous route, catch a glimpse of my own past into the bargain.

This aim was not achieved and, as the evening dragged on, I more than once reproached myself for getting involved when I had known all along how it would turn out. For one thing, it was as clear as day to me that even at twenty-five I would not have been so obdurate as to insist on getting a manuscript I was unsure of published against the advice of a more experienced colleague – if not out of discernment, then at least out of caution. And I knew, of course, that a person who is self-righteous and domineering in the morning is hardly likely to prove modest and considerate in the evening.

On the other hand, she was a woman. Although I had happened to solve the mystery of women the previous weekend, I thought that if my plan to explore the past came to nothing, it couldn’t hurt to gather further evidence to support my new insights.

Incidentally, dear reader, this text is to be an essay and its subject a topic that has occupied me for some time and you for about five minutes: the author’s representation of himself in his text. If you think I was pursuing a further, hidden agenda in asking the young lady out to dinner, I should like to make it quite clear that you are mistaken! First of all, I had a full-time mistress (she of the huge breasts) and secondly, when I wasn’t with her in Bremen, I slept with my wife pretty much every day. I didn’t agree with the set-up myself, but it’s the way things were and, God knows, it was enough for me. Just to be on the safe side I got room service to make up both sides of my bed – I had taken a double room. But no, what am I saying? I certainly didn’t get room service to make up both sides of the bed; I only wondered whether I should – just to be on the safe side – and then dismissed the idea as ridiculous. Yes, that’s the way it was.

It cannot be said, then, that I had high expectations of the evening. We had arranged to meet in a small sushi bar with four tables, a kind of annexe to a rather more spacious Japanese restaurant where chefs theatrically prepared meals at the customers’ tables. This whole Japanese establishment in turn made up the smaller part of a complex whose larger part was given over to a Chinese restaurant – despite the history of otherwise rather chilly relations between the Japanese and the Chinese. Immediately next to the restaurants was a two-storey hotel lobby, and arching over the whole thing – restaurants and hotel – was a glass shopping mall, all in the centre of Frankfurt. This complicated arrangement always made the small sushi bar seem almost out of the way. When we arrived, it was beginning to snow, and the slush from people’s boots clouded the reflection of the electric lights on the tiled floor of the shopping arcade.

It was a protracted evening. More than once I privately wondered why the hell I didn’t put an end to it, and the various reasons I came up with were by no means flattering to either me or my colleague. But I was no more capable of recognising a failure when I saw one than the young woman that morning. Instead, once dinner was over, we continued our insipid conversation with diminishing strength over white wine and salted almonds in a corner of the hotel lobby, while a bored singer in pink polyester trousers stood on a podium disgorging golden oldies to a keyboard accompaniment. The evening petered out like those rivers that dry up in the middle of the desert without ever reaching the sea.

Out on the streets, meanwhile, there was thick snow. As I saw it, this snow was going to make it impossible, or if not utterly impossible, then at the very least exceedingly difficult for me to cross Feldberg Hill to my hotel on summer tyres. I had, in fact, already set off in that direction, but after giving the matter some thought I turned the car and, accompanied by mysterious twinges of conscience, drove east along deserted, muffled streets to my former home where I parked in my former garage. From there I went into my former flat, opened the door to my former bedroom and got into my former bed with my former wife. Looking back on the tentative end of that exhausting evening today, I admit that somehow, in spite of everything, I had arrived at my destination (unlike those rivers that dry up in the middle of the desert without ever reaching the sea) although I knew as little (or as much) about that destination as a river knows about the sea. The only thing that seemed clear to me was that if at half past one in the morning I were to slip unannounced under my ex-wife’s duvet with cold feet, she wouldn’t grumble.

That aside, the evening marked not only the beginning of my acquaintance with the works of the writer Inoue, but also the late onset of a long hard winter in Germany. When I crossed the sea to Föhr with my son the following Saturday, we could count ourselves lucky that the ferry was still running. The grey sea was dotted with ice floes, snowflakes were dashing against the saloon windows, and when the ship came up against a sheet of ice, it was as if a giant fist punched it in the bows. My landlord hadn’t promised too much when he’d told me in the summer that February was the best time on the island.

By day, my son and I wrapped up warm and went on long walks. In the evenings I sat by the fire, quarrelling with my ex-wife or distant mistress on the phone, or listening to the moon, while the boy lay in the next room, grinding his teeth. On one of our treks along the beach through heaps of waist-high ice floes (waist-high for me, head-high for him), we came upon a cove where we found a heavily decayed duck carcass, sparkling with frost. One of the bird’s legs was still entangled in the remains of a green net, and in the delicate wickerwork of its ribcage its black shrivelled heart lay like a solitary pebble.

My boy couldn’t take his eyes off the dead creature and when he did manage to tear himself away at last, he only took a few steps before turning back. We stood together by the corpse for a long time, around us the shattered floes, stained brown by the mud – above us a swath of open sky. My son asked me about life and death, as if I was as well up on such matters as on everything else. He had two small tears on his cheeks, but I was pierced to my soul at the sight of my troubled child, brooding at the bird’s icy grave.

When we weren’t out walking, I read to the boy from the books about whales he had chosen in the bookshop in Wyk. I had also packed a whole pile of literature for myself, including a slim volume by Inoue, The Hunting Gun. This book, an unexpected gift from my young colleague, had turned up in my office the day after that long evening. She had written a dedication on the first page, describing the evening as ‘thrilling’, rather to my surprise. I decided to take that as confirming my opinion, not challenging it.

At the time I had just finished reading Eiji Yoshikawa’s novel Musashi. This book too contained a dedication – in the hand of my ex-wife, who had given it to me for Christmas eleven years before. You could say that traversing the novel for the second time after so long, afforded me the desired glimpse into my past. For although many details of the plot had stayed with me from my first reading, I now read the book with different eyes. Over the course of the years, I had evidently acquired knowledge not unlike the author’s. This allowed me to discover all kinds of things in the novel that had previously been hidden or obscure to me; at the same time, though, I could still recall my earlier way of reading. But one thing hadn’t changed: just like a decade and more ago, I felt moved by Yoshikawa’s closing sentences, where he compares people’s desires and opinions to the sound of the waves: ‘…but who knows the heart of the sea, a hundred feet down? Who knows its depth?’

I had decided to tackle Shogun by James Clavell while I was on Föhr because it is set in the same Japanese period as Musashi, and it was, like the work of Yoshikawa (and with a similar degree of success), written for a wide readership, albeit one with western taste. One inspiration for this comparison came from the remarks of a connoisseur of Japan on the – very different – love stories in the two novels. At the same time though, I was thirsty for more Japanese literature, so it was fortunate that I had also packed the slim volume by Inoue. It is a novella, not even a hundred pages long, and consists essentially of three letters, all addressed to the same man – one from his wife, one from his mistress, and one from his daughter by his mistress. After The Hunting Gun, I read all the books by Inoue I could lay my hands on; unfortunately, only a handful have been translated into German.

I am tempted to say that Inoue’s writings provided me with answers to many of the questions preoccupying me at the time. But I think what actually happened was that his texts helped me to deal with those questions by exercising a quiet influence on my way of looking at things, including the topic that is, as you, my courted reader, are well aware, the subject of this essay: the author’s representation of himself in his text. You will object that what I have written so far cannot be regarded as an essay. And I don’t deny it. Because to be honest I am quite incapable of writing essays. Only once, under duress, did I write such a thing; it was published in 1989 in the intaglio supplement of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and earned me, though I say it myself, a certain degree of recognition – perhaps you read it. At the time no one disputed its status as an essay. As its author, though, I know better. I only pretended to be an essayist by making my text as much like an essay as I could. But it wasn’t one.

Of course, it took me more than those twelve days on the snowbound Friesian island with my son to read all Inoue’s books. Spring came and by then I had stopped thinking of that long evening with my young colleague. I had lost sight of her; our paths hadn’t crossed again since that winter’s day. I would probably have forgotten that it was to her I owed my acquaintance with the writer who meant more to me than any writer had for years. But one day, when I picked up The Hunting Gun again, my eye fell on the dedication.

My memory of that evening in the sushi bar was exactly as I have described it, but now the whole thing struck me as peculiar. How could someone who not only didn’t think like me, but didn’t even seem to understand the way I thought, have led me to a writer who so comprehensively satisfied my desires? I recalled for example some ridiculous advice my colleague had tried to give me about my father. On other matters, too, I had found her way of thinking thoroughly arrogant. Now that I knew Inoue, it was a conundrum to me what the woman could have got out of such an author. Why had she even recommended the book to me? We must have talked about Japan over dinner – it was almost inevitable – and I suppose it was in that context that she mentioned The Hunting Gun. Then I remembered – she had cited the book as evidence.

We had been talking about the mystery of women. That I had lifted the lid on this mystery was something I was careful to keep to myself. My unspoken thesis was this: Women are different. I admit that, set down like that, it doesn’t sound overly original. To outsiders it may even look as if I were only reiterating the mystery, rather than offering a solution. But to me there was something revolutionary about my discovery. After thinking it through to the end, I found myself in that state of mind where you do not feed your insights to others, but seek to nourish them instead. I found such nourishment everywhere – for instance in a three-thousand-year-old Chinese poem which contains the lines: ‘A wise man builds up a wall / But a wise woman overthrows it.’

It would have been absurd to present the wisdom expressed in these lines from the Shijing to a woman – especially to my young colleague, who was convinced that the only difference between the sexes was that women were ‘sensitive’ and men weren’t. This theory of hers had been one of the main subjects of our turgid conversation. A few times, my colleague had directed my gaze at the next table where a group of Japanese people were eating. One of them, a small man in his mid-sixties, seemed to be a figure of some importance, for all the younger people were plying him with attention, while he seemed interested only in the food, which was being served one dish at a time. He largely ignored the conversations going on around him, only snatching the odd phrase here and there. Then – and only then – he would turn his head slightly in the direction the phrase had come from. But his attention was never held for long, and his gaze would soon return to his plate.

I don’t recall the exact situation – whether my companion and I could suddenly understand Japanese, or (even more unlikely) whether the Japanese at the next table were speaking German, or lastly (and this seems to me the most plausible) whether the situation was of a hypercultural nature so that it was impossible not to understand what was going on. But during dinner, the little man was bombarded with advice from his wife. ‘Don’t eat more than half of that!’ she would say, or: ‘That’s sour – don’t you think you’d better give it a miss?’ ‘You’re right, I’ll only eat half; I’d better not touch it,’ he would murmur obediently in a low voice, as if calling himself back to reason, but intermittently he would announce in a kind of monologue: ‘Delicious! I will eat it after all!’ I believe he ended up cleaning every single plate.

My companion interpreted the behaviour of Mr Tanizaki – for such, I was later to discover, was his name – as outrageous callousness, a typical male lack of ‘sensitivity’ so different from the loving efforts of Mrs Tanizaki, whose life was devoted to her husband’s health. Need I explain that I saw the situation in an entirely different light? No, because all that concerns me here is my young colleague’s mention of Inoue’s novella in the course of our discussion. As she saw it, the book dealt with our precise topic and demonstrated irrefutably – and very impressively – how women are broken by male aloofness.

In fact, if anything, what the novella describes is the whimsical desire of three particular women to be more or less broken by the aloofness of one particular male. About the man himself we learn next to nothing, and what little we do learn is almost exclusively from the point of view of the women. Since the three women also give their opinions on one another in their letters, and all of these are drastically wide of the mark, I felt it unlikely that they should have happened to plumb the man’s soul with any accuracy. When I remembered that the book was supposed to serve as proof of a hypothesis, this seemed to me reason enough to refuse to accept it as such – quite apart from my young colleague’s total disregard of the fact that the author of the book (and thus also of the women’s letters) was a man. In the end, then, I owed my acquaintance with the novella and its author to an amusing misunderstanding. And yet on one point I agreed wholeheartedly with my young colleague: The novella was the work of an extremely sensitive and, I might add, extremely benevolent master.

In the months that followed, I made several attempts to track down Inoue’s elusive personality. In the end, as you will have noticed, even this mystery was solved. As the ice floes melted, my life, like the ice, began to restructure itself in a curious fashion. In some inexplicable way, my wife’s grumbling fell away from her and transferred itself to my distant mistress. And at some point in the course of the following summer – I had been back home for a while by then – my son even stopped grinding his teeth in his sleep. Was it all only a dream? Ah, dear reader, I’m sure you can’t tell me.

*Copyright © Volker Zastrow, 1998.

*The translation of this story was supported by the Goethe-Institute.