Awful Voice
Author: Shinji Ishii
Specifications: ISBN  978-4163902883
434 pages
13.5 x 19.5 cm / 5.4 x 7.8 in (WxH)
Category: Fiction
Publisher: Bungeishunju Ltd.
Tokyo, 2015
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This ambitious work of literary fiction uses the motifs of voice and music as well as such natural imagery as moss, water, mushroom spores, and towering trees to trace the history of the earth. The story does not present the reader with a single main character to follow. Instead, author Shinji Ishii makes brilliant use of a unique narrative technique that oscillates between macroscopic and microscopic points of view and has no linear beginning or end.

If one particular character were to be singled out, it would be a boy dubbed “Something” by the narrator. The story begins when this “Something” is discovered as a baby abandoned at a ruined temple covered in moss outside Kyoto. The villagers who find him agree that he should be entrusted to a couple in their thirties who have been unable to have a child after experiencing a stillbirth. “Something” is the owner of an incomparably beautiful voice that sends shivers up and down the spines of all who hear it. In response to the voice of the moss, he periodically takes flight like a spore on the wind and disappears to parts unknown for a time. These “flights” cease once he has learned human language and starts to school, but his classmates still consider him enough of an oddball to call him “little devil”—initially, at least, meant endearingly.

In middle school, “Something” offers a beautiful rendition of “Santa Lucia” for his music teacher without ever having learned it. Similarly, at the services held to observe the sixth anniversary of his foster mother’s death, he unfalteringly chants a Buddhist sutra that he has never been taught. “Something” is portrayed as belonging to a different realm with a direct connection to the natural world, and also as one who experiences synesthesia. When he hears music, or when he himself sings, he sees landscapes in the sound, or his consciousness leaps across space and time to meet and speak with people in other places. As “Something” grows up, he encounters other unusual characters whose abilities exceed his own, and this leads to entirely new plot sequences.

“Something” is fond of the ruined temple named Busshōji (literally “Buddha Voice Temple”) that was his “birthplace,” and takes to stopping by on his way home from middle school and drinking sake there all by himself. Then a mendicant monk takes up residence in the temple. This monk, who says he has wandered all over the world, for the first time makes “Something” aware of just how special his ability to “see sound” is. The monk’s twin brother Tama is a tenor saxophone player who has a worldwide following. Returning home from Amsterdam with his 16-year-old daughter Ao, he brings “Something” on as a guest vocalist at a live gig. Soon “Something” has all but moved in with Ao, but then Ao falls ill, and the two break up. More than a millennium earlier, a velvet-voiced young monk had come to Busshōji. Initially he won praise for his voice from one and all, but as time went by, his voice began causing women to suffer from endless vomiting and diarrhea. It appears that the same vengeful spirit has now possessed Ao through her lover’s similarly incomparable voice.

Since ancient times, Japanese culture has ascribed divine qualities to each and every phenomenon of nature. The literature has frequent references to yaoyorozu no kami (“the 800-million deities”), and poets across the ages have closely observed and listened to nature and sung its praises in poem and song. This novel seeks to be an extension of that tradition.