The Big OE
Tandem Press, $24.95,
A Snake in the Shrine – Journeys with Nobby through Middle Japan
University of Otago Press, $29.95,
When I picked up The Big OE by Nigel McCarter I thought, here’s a promising idea. Primed by a few key phrases on the back cover (“part of New Zealand culture … enriches our lives … wide range of experiences … spanning fifty years”), I crawled into my armchair, ready to be transported to exotic places, and to understand, a little better, this well-established Kiwi coming-of-age ritual.
Oh, the disappointment.
While some of the stories are amusing (notably “Bundled with Hafstein’s Mama” and “Fly spray and hakas”), others are ho-hum or downright dull. Having a great time as you cycle around war-torn Britain or latch on to a Con-tiki tour through Morocco is undoubtedly a memorable and much cherished experience for the individual concerned, but conveying this to a reader is another matter. No matter how much territory is covered, many miles do not make a literary journey.
McCarter’s book can be compared to a vault full of Radio New Zealand oral history archives. It’s good, in theory, that they exist, but do we really want to spool our way through other people’s reminiscences? By the end of McCarter’s book, I decided that the whole concept of interviewing and recording travellers’ experiences needed a second look. To my mind, the great undigested mass of material we call life needs the writer’s “voice” to give it shape and context.
These travel snapshots fail to satisfy on the page because the writer’s voice is missing. The ability to describe and interpret another culture or place makes travel writing a worthwhile and pleasurable genre. But if that unique perception or voice is missing, you may as well thumb through an in-flight magazine or an old National Geographic. At least they have some great colour photos.
A Snake in the Shrine comes much closer to my idea of an enjoyable armchair journey. David Geraghty writes with an eye for physical and emotional detail, describing the complex layers that make up modern-day Japan, in a vital and absorbing way. He weaves together his daily life, his job as an English teacher and his growing friendship with his neighbour Nobuyuki (Nobby) and wife Hiroe, to give us an insider’s look at middle-class life in middle Japan.
It didn’t surprise me that Geraghty, a former Commonwealth Scholar, is described in his publicity material as “now writing a novel”. Many of his observations are the sort of thing I’ve come to expect from a work of fiction. His personal involvement is an added bonus in an already well-written text:
Pointing at his wife, Nobuyuki asked us in English, “Do you think she is stupid?” Embarrassed we declined comment. Nobuyuki encouraged us, “Don’t worry she can’t understand English.” He then informed us Hiroe’s nickname was “Chibi-debu” (“short and fat”).
Geraghty also proves adept at sketching vivid characterisations. He describes friends, colleagues and fellow travellers, peppering his book with their foibles, whims, faults and kindnesses. This ability to capture human nature makes A Snake in the Shrine a pleasure to read:
I turned my attention inside the train and watched a gawky pubescent boy across the aisle as he eyeballed and throttled a Nintendo game. The pimply youngster, seated alongside a middle-aged female relative, wore a tee shirt bearing the incredible legend “Ho Chi Minh City: Poontang Heaven.”
Humour, a quick ear and a wicked eye provide an ever-changing cast of characters:
Luke might have materialised from the pages of Flannery O’Connor: tall and barrel bellied, with thinning hair slicked back from his forehead, ice-blue eyes, a Bill Hickok moustache, a boxy pin-striped suit and a slow sarcastic way of speaking.
The pressures of living and working in Tokyo meant that Geraghty and his wife Vicki were keen to get away from the crowds, even if only for a weekend. Once they discovered the mountainous rural areas of Japan, with shrines to local forest gods and locally brewed sake, a different Japan opened up to them: “The snow clouds stopped at the edge of the mountains, giving way to sudden dusk and a slow-rising full moon, the clear light imparting a lilac cast to the freshly blanketed fields.”
Although their travels with Nobby and Hiroe provided a new perspective, Geraghty was also forced to acknowledge that brutal over-development constantly threatens rural Japan. After a few trips into the hinterland, Geraghty concluded, somewhat sadly, that tacky commercialisation of historic and natural sites, hordes of tourists, pollution, rubbish, and nightmare traffic jams are as much “real” Japan as the Zen-like mountain landscapes he escaped to.
Through the book, Geraghty writes with an engaging frankness about the good, the bad and the ugly during his three-year stay in Japan, He discusses contemporary concerns like politics, pornography, materialism, homelessness, comfort women and workplace sterility as well as places and people. These topical observations give depth and interest to Geraghty’s travels, enlightening as well as entertaining the reader with some of the trends and cultural fetishes unique to the Japanese.
The last third of the book felt a bit hurried and I began to tire of the descriptions of whisky, sake, beer consumed, as well as the search for accommodation and food on the road (high on every traveller’s agenda, I know, but not on every reader’s). This is a quibble, however. If the content flags a little towards the finishing line, this is still a great book to give anyone going to Japan as a tourist or a teacher. Any Kiwi who wants to visit present-day Japan (via the armchair or the aeroplane) will find A Snake in the Shrine both entertaining and intelligent.
Michaelanne Forster is a Christchurch writer.