There’s no way out out of Tokyo, all of Tokyo is language. This real estate comes with frontiers and limits. There are three possibilities of escaping the Japanese language: unlearning the language, which doesn’t seem likely; ailments such as amnesia or dementia, which might not eliminate the textual residue; rebelliously acquiring a new language to erase the old, but again, the old language might always linger. A mother language is a life sentence. All of Tokyo is language.
The unnamed narrator of Slow Boat wants out. This pencil-thin novel begins with a quick confession, “I’ve never made it out of Tokyo”, and sets the speed. Within the first two pages, the intimate world of Slow Boat is revealed conversationally, in a city tone which is casual and self-aware. Hideo Furukawa doesn’t write to impress, instead he writes to confide. To show us how complex, abstract concepts can be approached informally. He downplays. He’s whimsical. But what is our narrator really trying to escape from? We discover that the narrator is a dropout who is sent to a special school. The director of this school, a practicing psychoanalyst, puts an end to his excessive sleeping. He no longer feels safe in his dreamworld, “What if someone got their hands on my dreams? It’d be like someone messing with your corpse”. This terminates his dream diving, his only means of escape. Still, the narrator is creative and persistent and we plunge into his dream playground.
The narrative voice isn’t dressed up in tricks and detours. It’s childlike and honest. It shifts between confiding and confessing, and we’re unsure if the narrator is confessing to himself or to an audience located outside of the story. Even the boyish exaggerations, are unashamedly boyish. The voice absorbs life’s devilish complexities, having experienced them firsthand. It isn’t deceitful over artificial experiences, nor is it didactic, or excessively virtuous. Yet, it still manages to display endearing bits of bombastic self-understanding.
This is a chronicle of failures. In three stages, through three women, the narrator tries to escape Tokyo, although we’re never quite certain as to what he’s escaping. He even tries to escape the city without leaving it. There’s mention of Freud and a womb complex. Through his escapes we learn about the vastness of Tokyo, its outer peripheries, its projected limits, its nerve-endings and crows. We learn about the spaces of Tokyo through a geography of feeling, not of location. There’s another kind of escape hovering, less of a physical one. There’s an intense relationship with language, its misgivings, as well as its generosity. The narrator wanders around Tokyo on Christmas Eve, weighing the prospects of Japanese, “I wonder if the Japanese language can do justice to my dreams now.”
Language appears everywhere in the story, playing peekaboo, emerging from rough corners. It isn’t aggressive, as its never really sure of itself, and its doubtfulness disarms. The narrator’s escapes consistently return to language and dreams, “Can’t write about your dreams without the language of dreams.” What is it about dreams that are so rooted in the language of signs?
Slow Boat is best approached as an intimate confession. The story pushes the reader to ask, what is the story doing to me, how am I feeling? What does it mean to confess? Perhaps this is a confession meant for Murakami, who Furukawa describes in the closing remarks as “the roots of his soul”, and we are intruders to this confession.
For Murakami addicts, who routinely need Murakami shaped toffees, there’s perhaps no better dose to satiate cravings than by reading books influenced by Murakami. Furukawa remixes Murakami’s story, ‘A Slow Boat to China’, through love “that has no other value than purity”. It’s by learning what Furukawa loves and how he loves, that we near the subject of his love. Somewhere, we learn what it means to be young, free, and hopeful. Somewhere, we learn that there is no escaping the desire to escape. Language penetrates every reality, every dream. It’s by choosing our words, by forging our own language, we disappear into the self’s innermost oblivion. Where we are free from words. Free from the world.
Slow Boat Author: Hideo Furukawa
Translated by: David Boyd
Publisher: Pushkin Press, 2017