marcel barang

‘Embers’ by Ezra Erker

In English, Reading matters on 29/12/2009 at 11:32 pm

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Being short of printing paper, I read some of this draft novel, roughly its central third, on my computer screen, which isn’t perhaps the best way to approach a novel, especially one as teeming with characters, a whole classroom of nubile girls in a Japanese Christian pre-U school, their supervisory staff, the hordes of women outside, and distant capers as far away as Australia and Nepal. It takes some time to figure out who is who, before the action settles mainly on a few characters and their respective neuroses or dramas, around protagonist teacher Moniwa, his various love interests – from married Fuyumi to virgin Sayaka –, existential despairs and professional and personal qualms.

There is much meat here, minutely packaged in the fluid, often arrestingly sparkling prose that is a hallmark of the author, with humorous scenes or asides and subtly moving, even disturbing, sequences. The whole structure is less of a fast-paced movie than of a nightclub’s stroboscopic lights or of a tachist painting.

At one level, it is the bubbly evocation of a time of youth when sexual urges come to the fore, for better or for worse, with their droll or dreary fallouts when you start to age; the finicky description of the paltry state of Japanese education today; and a protracted pilgrim’s progress towards ‘genuine’, that is disincarnate, love.

At another level, it is a nature study in alienation and frustration and a reflexion on estrangement and on what constitutes national and personal identity and, you guessed it, a search for the meaning of life. Plenty to seduce the adolescent soul.

And yet there is also much that is slightly or more than slightly out of kilter.

Let’s forget that I kept misreading Moniwa as Monica – my mistake, for not knowing Japanese, and also the author’s, for dishing out Japanese names that could do with starker differentiation. Let’s put aside in this Brit English-spelt text the lapses into American English – that can easily be fixed. Let’s disregard the juvenile need to precede each chapter with compacts of dialogues to come – that is part of a deadlier sin.

There are occasional gaucheries, such as presenting a character (Ms Wada) twice over; or having characters lacking consistency or substance; or dishing out the Australian odyssey of the central character piecemeal throughout the book in a way which often obscures the sequence of events; or keeping for a final flourish a letter that should have been perused much earlier.

More serious is that, too often, dialogue, which can be quite sharp and to the point, drifts into didactic or fancy mode: a bartender telling at length a one-time customer (our hero) about her family’s and her own wrangles with the yakuza for the sake of a subplot; a not quite sharp seventeen-year-old pupil under the weight of impending death yet buoyed by terminal love suddenly lapsing into syllogistic truths mode with her lover Moniwa dishing out more of the same, in an echo of his verbal exchanges with his married paramour at the start of the tale.

This seems to me to point to the major weakness of Ezra Erker as a story-teller, which I have vaguely perceived through the dozen or so pieces, mainly short stories, he has had the kindness to send to me but which I only now can put into words: a taste for grand ideas and flights of fancy – what I always think of as intellectual masturbation –  that distract from the stories he otherwise tells so well. I find that his best texts are those in which he doesn’t try to reach for the stars, to show how brilliant his intellect is, but tells a story at one removed, and lets it deliver its message without him probing and prancing around.

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