by Akira Yamashita
This story is sort of a fantasy story with a mysterious twist. Akira Yamashita is the pseudonym of Poisoned Pen Press mystery author Vasudev Murthy.
I feel very certain that had I not visited Miyazawa-san that morning, he would have died.
On the other hand, I also wonder whether it might not have been better had he died, as he is today a nervous wreck, unable to function normally, with a fear of books, magazines and newspapers that is beyond the ken of normal understanding.
Miyazawa-san is of course, the same Nobuyuki Miyazawa. Perhaps Japan’s greatest writer ever and to whom words were toys to be arranged and rearranged at random, creating sublime masterpieces. His stories were beyond the commonplace and merged the elements of nature and human experiences in a way that left the reader breathless, and often small. They were addictive drugs and were quite overpowering.
People thought about things as Miyazawa-san ‘commanded.’They held opinions on apparently irrelevant matters that Miyazawa-san threw randomly in his stories (Excerpt from A Cold Summer, 1979) –“The four tires of a bus must be in different colors to represent the four seasons. And as they move, they represent the movement of time.”
These few words caused an uproar! Posters were made and discussions took place about them on TV and a town in Southern Honshu actually implemented the idea and painted the tires of its municipal buses just so. And I remind you about his beautiful love story with a strange title A Heart of Mercury which spoke of the love between a man and woman who never met each other in their lifetime and wrote to each other every single day for sixty years.
The readers followed their lives from youth to old age and cried for them. I cannot deny that I too was greatly moved by the story, and did not find it implausible at all. The climax, where the man died and the woman visited his grave accompanied by her nephew was so utterly moving that I can say without exaggeration that the entire nation wept and could not be consoled.
I recall an editorial in the newspaper Asahi Shimbum which fawned on Miyazawa-san’s writing and said “..to hold one of his book’s in your hands is to hold something alive and breathing, of delicate beauty and eternal life. How fortunate we are in Japan to share the same period of time with such a man.” (and so on).
The man himself did not care at all. He lived as a recluse in a tiny house in the Ueno neighbourhood and rarely emerged, except to do some frugal shopping and tend to a few plants. He was a bachelor and did not care for the company of women. He wrote like a man possessed. I knew him because we had studied together briefly and somehow struck up an impersonal friendship. Our meetings were celebrations of the joy of silence.
I knocked. He opened the door and silently allowed me in. He went to his desk to write. I made two cups of tea. He would sit with me in his living room. We sipped tea. He would wordlessly hand over some work in progress for my comments. Once in a way, I would stop reading, either because the writing was so exquisite or because I did not understand something. Then I would reflect on the work or on the train of thought he had sent me on. Time would pass. He would watch me impassively, with cold eyes and a frozen visage. The man was an enigma. Then I would leave.
As he grew older, his genius expanded at a frightful rate. The brilliance of his earlier work paled in comparison to his more recent ones. The trilogy The Mysteries of the Empty Kitchen, for its misleading title, mangled the nation as never before. The ending was so unexpected, with the heroic protagonist turning out to be shockingly evil in the space of only three final pages that many cried aloud in wonder and reread the book to find out why they could never have guessed the base character of the man, Watanabe, all along. But that you know.
For long, I had harbored a suspicion that all was not well with Miyazawa-san. The cold eyes had a hint of fear. The impassive face had a few tremors. The fingers that held the tea cup shook. His room seemed cluttered, with books strewn all over, including at the door, near the windows, in the kitchen…everywhere.
One day, he blurted out. “I should not have written that book.”
“But why? It is acknowledged to be your finest, if that can actually be said.”
“The book is extremely unhappy with me.”
“Be precise. I am not intelligent.”
“The book resents the ending.”
“A reader might. But why should the book? And how could the book?”
“It is so, it is so…I cannot explain”, said Miyazawa-san in a trembling voice and suddenly got up and paced the room.
“Perhaps you need a change…a vacation?”
“No, no…how can I explain…yes, these words are alive. As they emerge from my pen, they wait for the next word and rejoice in them…they form the story and wait for closure… they have life, they think, they breathe, believe me…”
The words tumbled out from a frightened, old shrunken man. I was silent. Feeling for him, I got up and left the house, to let him recover his pride. As I passed through the doorway, something hit me. I turned around. On the floor was a copy of the book, open at the last page. It must have fallen from the pile, I reasoned, and walked away. But I did not sleep well.
In the morning, I decided to visit Miyazawa-san again. I could not understand my anxiety. I knocked. There was no response. I knocked again, more urgently, louder. Then i pushed the door open. Imagine my surprise to find that the door was blocked by a huge pile of books, copies of his latest book. I forced my way in.
“Miyazawa-san, Miyazawa-san”, I called out, worried.
I heard sounds from his bedroom and ran. The path was strewn by pages torn from books, almost like entrails. It was a mess. I entered the room to find books and pages swirling in the room and Miyazawa-san pinned to the far end of the wall by a huge pile of books. It was as though someone were walling him to death. All I could see were two terrified eyes and the upper part of his head.
Horrified by the sight, I rushed forward and threw aside all the books and pulled him out from the quicksand of paper and books. Someone or something had been beating him continuously for hours with those books. I helped him to his garden and made him sit down. He clutched me in fear and I knew he did not want me to leave him for even a second. He slowly recovered his breath and held his head in his hands. His face was nicked and his clothes were torn. He had been set upon very badly.
I took him home silently after locking the door of his house. On the way, he said, in a frightened whisper, “It was the book, it was the book, it did not like its own ending, it tried to kill me…”
Fanciful, you say? And I thought so too for a short while, but then recalling those shocking moments and Miyazawa-san’s inexplicable injuries and the state of that house, I felt like agreeing.
I left Miyazawa-san to the care of my efficient wife, who cleaned him up and managed to calm him down. I returned to his house to clean up the mess. I was no coward and as it happens, I am tall and strong.
The house was in perfect condition. Everything was just right. The books were in their place. There was no hint of chaos and confusion. I thought I smelled some smoke.
I went to the tiny backyard to check. Outside was a pile of books, burning.
They were copies of his unhappy book, The Mysteries of the Empty Kitchen and they had chosen to take their own life.
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