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      Seicho Matsumoto: A Quiet Place.       

Bitter Lemon Press     £ 8.99.

           

Nothing combines indulgence, conformity and obedience as well as karaoke.  The Japanese word ‘karaoke’ means listen.  Karaoke contains discovery, excitement and reciprocal polite gestures.  The fun is obligatory.  Japan is the most well behaved capitalist society in the world.  ‘Manners maketh man’ is the motto of Winchester College and New College Oxford.  They do more than that.  In Japan they help reduce the crime rate to something well below what happens in other capitalist societies.  Crime is manageable for a police force and judiciary that are not considered competent by locals.  Manners can mean self-effacement and missed opportunities but they can also determine what follows.  Manners inform decisions, and decisions determine subsequent events.

A Quiet Place is a fine crime novel and a welcome addition to the exceptional international list of Bitter Lemon Press.  The crime that is committed in the novel is a surprise.  For a while this reader expected the criminal to be the victim. The crime is a consequence of when manners are forgotten, when temper rules. What follows is fate, and timid obedient men can shape fate as much as the confident and the assertive. 

In his life author Seicho Matsumoto was prolific.  He wrote forty novels and hundreds of short stories and essays.  Six of his novels have been filmed.  If the others are half as good as A Quiet Place then Matsumoto was special.  Comparisons have been made with Elmore Leonard, the great thriller writer from the United States.   The Japanese may like Elvis for karaoke but as they say at Winchester College, ‘manners maketh the man’.  Japan is different from the United States. 

A Quiet Place shares the sensibility of Georges Simenon. The style is different and the writing has more depth and detail but the French writer also described modest lives consisting of work that was endured and gratification that was best not discussed.  Problems arose from the inevitable secrecy and private desires.  Simenon was also prolific.  He was obliged to scratch the surface of ordinary lives and pick at the frustration and the hypocrisy.

The opening chapter of A Quiet Place describes a meal between businessmen and civil servants.  Geishas are present.  This odd mix of duty and indulgence defines the responsibility and entitlement of the Japanese male.  Words and gestures are circumscribed by careers and business.   The good news about karaoke is that people keep their clothes on.

In A Quiet Place two people take their clothes off in front of each other and in private.  Various factors play their part in what follows.  These include ignorance, fate, paranoia, ego, timidity, incompetence, self-destruction and irony. All these factors are affected by how the characters understand the boundaries in Japanese life and their obligations.  The extent to which each factor determines the outcome is not obvious.  A very different tension prevails in A Quiet Place because the place is, of course, not quiet.  The tension requires a mastery of plot and characterisation and an understanding of the formalities in Japanese society.  A Quiet Place will stay in the mind of the reader long after the book has been finished.

 By Howard Jackson.