Under the Osakan Sun
Awa Press, $34.99,
A Long Slow Affair of the Heart
If this review were a competition, there should have been no contest – a young first-time writer stumbling through three years of teaching English in Japan versus a highly experienced journalist cruising through the canals of France. But for me the clear winner of the contest was Hamish Beaton’s Under the Osakan Sun which made me laugh out loud and shed a tear or two – while my strongest reaction to reading Bruce Ansley’s A Long Slow Affair of the Heart was a resolve never to have to deal with the terrifying-sounding locks of Europe’s canals.
Not that Ansley’s book isn’t well written. As one would expect of someone with a distinguished journalism career, it is; it’s just that Beaton has that much more to draw on. He spent three years living in Osaka in Japan; Ansley spent a year cruising on canals on the fringes of French life.
And that deeper immersion into another culture, as much as anyone can achieve it, is reflected in the book Beaton offers. When his New Zealand university studies finish, he decides to take a job teaching English at a government school in Japan, “a blind date with a country I have been studying for eight years.” There he flings himself wholeheartedly into the life of the school, enduring many indignities as the school’s token gaijin [foreigner], such as frightening the kindergarten kids when dressed as Santa, taking part in a swimming race only to have his trunks fall down, and overestimating his post-hangover prowess in a running race. Yep, he came last.
Beaton lands one of the toughest classes, the young minnows, a class we’d consider special needs. His good-heartedness shines through as he takes the time to try to figure out just what will work with his charges. Eventually he happens upon card games, and these prove so popular that the usually toughest nut in the class, the taciturn Teru-chan, insists on playing all through lunch hour. It’s a highpoint for Beaton when one of his special charges finally graduates. “With a look of great pride he called out ‘hai’ in the loudest, clearest voice I had ever heard him utter. This single word [yes] reverberated around the school gymnasium, and I burst into tears.” By then I was so enamoured of these special kids that I did too.
It’s not just the children Beaton captures so well, but also the colourful, in many cases quirky, Japanese people that he meets. I’m not sure if it’s just gaijin who attract these folk, but, 20 years on from my own time in Japan, the side of this ancient culture that brings us the weird gameshows, the dressed-up but not dangerous Japanese punk, and that strangest of sports, sumo, seems very much intact.
Take, for example, the Yamaguchi family. Beaton was giving the son Hiroshi extra English tuition. One night sitting down to dinner after the lesson, the father turned to Beaton to ask in a serious tone, “Mr Hamish, what kind of porno do you like, Japanese or foreign?” Beaton stammers his way through the conversation, embarrassed this was occurring in front of Mrs Yamaguchi and her son. But, later, Mrs Yamaguchi offers Beaton advice on porn vending machines: “Don’t buy porn there! It’s too expensive. I buy my porn in town.”
Mr and Mrs Oki, a couple that Beaton had first met in New Zealand, were “one of the most unusual couples I had ever met”. Mrs Oki sweeps back into Beaton’s life – and apartment – questioning him intensely: “Heymishi, Heymishi, is this your apartment? Is this your table? Where do you sleep? Do you cook for yourself, Heymishi?” Her frantic friendship and that of her husband remain a fixture during Beaton’s stay in Japan. When he leaves, they drive him to the airport, with Mr Oki fretting that Beaton hasn’t checked in early enough: “Come on, you only have three hours until your flight leaves.” (As a sad footnote Beaton finds out some time after his return to New Zealand that both Mr and Mrs Oki are now in an “institution” with only immediate family allowed to contact them.)
But not all friends are quite so strange. He gives private English lessons to a group of elderly Japanese women (his Japanese mothers), and they reward him with a wonderful, warm friendship: “They had welcomed me into their homes and shared their lives with me. They had complained about their husbands and divulged their sorrows and secrets. They had given me advice and comforted me in times of my own unhappiness.”
Some of his unhappiness stems from his stumbling quest to find a girlfriend. There’s Momo-chan whose bizarre fob off was “I can’t meet you on Saturday. My neighbour’s house burned down”; Rina, who owned a hostess bar and who was in debt to the Japanese version of the mafia, the yakuza; and others who didn’t realise that Beaton actually liked them: “I’ve met this guy in my French class,” says Mariko. “I was wanting to ask him out for a meal. What do you think I should do?” Beaton eventually meets the charming Akko and develops a friendship with her that extends beyond his stay in Japan.
By contrast, cruising the waterways meant that Bruce Ansley merely passed by, rather than partook in, life in France, the destination after he and his wife Sally bought their canal boat from the Netherlands.
The canals in France seem to attract a peculiar mix of very whingey Brits, adventurous middle-aged Australasians and a few rich Europeans – but aside from the Madame la Boulangerie, the lockkeeper and the people who run the marinas, there seem to be very few French people in his story. Even those canal boaties who love France don’t appear to learn much about the place: “Most had only a rudimentary grasp of the language and the sad fact was that they did not know much about the inner workings of the country.”
In general, I found the canal folk an unlikeable lot. Taking part in the annual blessing of the barges fails to excite: “The boats were covered in flags and bunting. The barges were blessed. They went down the river in convoys, followed by a flotilla of lesser craft. We watched from Ian’s barge. Someone said it was all a little boring.” I wanted to shake that onlooker.
What I would have liked even more of was the mechanics of life on the canals. Ansley captures the terror and the tedium of the locks particularly well. It’s not all picturesque aqueducts, cute canal boats and charming lockkeepers, but automated and sometimes very deep locks and queues of jousting, jostling barges. And challenges such as an 866-metre tunnel:
It gave me the creeps. Sharp lumps of hewn rock burst from the darkness, ready to hack their initials in the side of the boat. Sally would call, too far this side, or too far that. When her voice rose to a scream I knew she was serious.
Whenever they do tie up for a few days’ respite, Ansley’s years of journalistic experience ensure he can sketch the flavour of the locale. In Decize they arrive at the time of a vide grenier, the clearing of the town’s attics that enables the Ansleys to indulge their love of French brocante: “Sally disappeared into the ocean of junk like a seal, emerging every now and then to frolic with some morsel before submerging again.”
But despite the occasional joys of dipping into France’s villes and villages, Sally becomes homesick. She doesn’t find life on a canal boat easy: “I bashed and crashed around them. Sally merely stumbled occasionally but there was a difference: I did not bruise, but she did.” Their planned sojourn is truncated, and they repair to New Zealand to mend their lives and their love:
Dreams are full of romance and beauty or they would not be dreams. Beauty stands alone but romance takes two. I felt my own dream dulling, cold breath on a mirror. I wondered whether it was a dream too far.
Ansley is brave in revealing the trouble that travelling through the French canals caused his marriage, but that honesty drains the book of the adventure that the title promises. Beaton’s honesty, on the other hand, makes his story sparkle.
Kim Griggs is a Wellington journalist.