Contemporary Japanese Writers

Hideo Levy*

Hideo Levy* リービ英雄

Hideo Levy (1950–)  represents the rich diversity of contemporary Japanese literature. Wherever he goes, so does this copy: “The first novelist who is not a native Japanese speaker to write in Japanese.” Levy handwrites his works in penmanship that is extremely difficult to decipher. It is as if he were more Japanese than even the most Japanese of writers.

Ian Hideo Levy, whose middle name was taken from a second-generation Japanese-American friend of his father’s, was born to a Jewish-American father and a Polish immigrant mother in Berkeley, California. He began his career as an academic in Japanese literature and in 1978, at the young age of 28, was appointed an assistant professor at his alma mater, Princeton University. In 1981, he published The Ten Thousand Leaves: A Translation of the Man’yōshū, Japan’s Premier Anthology of Classical Poetry, for which he received the National Book Award the following year. By this time Levy had begun writing poetry of his own in Japanese and was already highly proficient in the language.

Levy has recounted, “as if splitting my life in two, I was living my life half in the U.S. and half in Japan.” How did the Japanese language, which was starting to fill up his brain, spill over in the form of novels? What led Levy, an American, to write in the language of a cultural colony? “That question makes me want to respond instantly that it is because Japanese is beautiful; French is no match. Isn’t it only natural that one would want to write in Japanese?” he states in the afterword of his first novel.

That debut, Seijōki no kikoenai heya (tr. The Room Where the Star-Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard), sent shockwaves through the Japanese literary scene when it was published in 1992 and won the Noma Prize for New Writers the same year.

The story is set in Yokohama. It is nearing the end of the 1960s, and Japan is in the midst of student demonstrations and anti-American protests over the U.S.’s role in Vietnam. Ben Isaac, a 17-year-old whose father is an American diplomat, lives at the American consulate. The tale depicts Ben’s rebellion against his father and disgust toward his own country. When he is unexpectedly overcome by the appeal of the Japanese language, he leaves home and disappears into the hustle-bustle of Shinjuku.

As with an I-novel (a genre of autobiographical fiction that once thrived in modern Japanese literature), one can imagine that the protagonist’s experiences are almost a perfect reflection of the author’s. Levy compares Ben, wandering around the city unable to read any signs or understand the sounds that surround him, to Helen Keller. The Japanese language descends on Ben with a sort of epiphany, in the same way that language suddenly made sense to Keller when “her benevolent and gifted teacher wrote ‘water’ in her hand.” Ben, no less than the author himself, succeeds in bulldozing his way through a cell surrounded by Japanese people convinced that it is impossible for foreigners to understand their language?the same people who say, with Japanese smiles, “Your Japanese is very good” and do not mean it.

Levy, who cultivated his literary talent by traveling back and forth between the U.S. and Japan, later discovered through his visits to China a new richness in the Chinese language and continent. The fruits of these journeys are Kokumin no uta (Citizens’ Song) and Henrī Takeshi Rewikkī no natsu no kikō (Henry Takeshi Levitsky’s Summer Journey). These two books were based on research Levy conducted in China, and for the novella Manshū ekusupuresu (Manchurian Express) in Citizen’s Song he visited what was formerly known as Manchuria, where the novelist Kobo Abe had spent his childhood. The peerless knack for visual observation and aural perception demonstrated in these works are proof of Levy’s delicate gift for language.

Of all the Japanese novels inspired by the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Levy’s Chiji ni kudakete (Broken into a Thousand Pieces) stands out. The author, who was on his way to see his family in the U.S., first learned of the incident when he was grounded at his stopover in Vancouver. It was then that his native language, English, of which he had not written a single line in over a decade, started to resonate. Based on the author’s personal experience, the work depicts the world behind his native language, a world that, as Basho expressed in his haiku, had broken into thousands of pieces.

* Seijōki no kikoenai heya (Kodansha, 1992, 193 pages, Noma Prize for New Writers)
* Kokumin no uta (Kodansha, 1998, 181 pages)
* Henrī Takeshi Rewikkī no natsu no kikō (Kodansha, 2002, 184 pages)
* Chiji ni kudakete (Kodansha, 2005, 165 pages, Osaragi Jiro Prize)