IN LEVY HIDEO'S NOVEL A Room Where the Star-Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard — set in 1967 — anti-American protests roil Japan. Middle-aged demonstrators mass in orderly ranks before the American consul’s Yokohama residence and helmeted students in nearby Tokyo universities spill into the streets, shouting and sometimes singing their demands. Amid these chanting, swirling energies, the American consul’s seventeen-year-old son, Ben Issac, the hero of this semi-autobiographical bildungsroman, quietly takes the measure of things.
“Levy Hideo” is the pen name of Ian Hideo Levy, a scholar and writer whose vitae is studded with superlatives and firsts. His exquisite rendering into English of Japan’s first Imperial poetry anthology, Man'yoshu, circa 759, was published in 1981 as The Ten Thousand Leaves, an achievement that won him the National Book Award for Translation. After shuttling between Japan and the United States during the 1980s, Levy left his tenured post at Stanford in 1991 to live permanently in Japan as a full-time writer, mostly in Japanese. Other literary prizes followed, including a Atukagawa Prize nomination for Tiananmen (Ten’anmon, 1996), the Osaragi Jiro Prize for Thousands and Thousands of Pieces (Chiji ni kudakete, 2004), and the Ito Sei Prize for Fake Water (Kari no mizu, 2008). (Levy’s recent fiction, as suggested by the titles above, explores mainland China.)
As with much of Levy’s work, A Room Where the Star-Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard originally appeared not in English but in Japanese. It was first published serially between 1987 and 1991 in the journal, Gunzo, and subsequently as Seijoki no kikienai heya in 1992, attracting praise from Japanese Nobel Laureate Oe Kenzaburo and winning the Noma Literary Award for New Writers. It has now finally crossed the Pacific, translated into serviceable English by Christopher D. Scott. We owe a debt of thanks to him, and to Columbia University Press, for making “the first white American novelist to write in Japanese” available to English-speaking readers.
The distances that separate people form the central theme of Levy’s compelling novel. With the solemnity of an intelligent, observant adolescent, Ben maps these manifold relations, watching the ways in which those around him construct yawning chasms of distaste or nimbly leap over the gaps. Sometimes the distances are measured in words, with the problems of language and translation at the forefront; sometimes the distances are enacted through mere gesture, but all are carefully calibrated by this longhaired boy standing on the verge of manhood. Everywhere there are fissures: within each society, and across Asia, throughout the troubled twentieth century. Negotiating this turbulent landscape of cultures and subcultures, Ben spends his childhood in the tropical Asian postings of his diplomat father, his early teens in racially charged Virginia, and, returning to the father he has not seen for seven years, in a Japan embroiled in its own postwar coming-of-age, testing America’s dominion. Ben runs away from the Yokohama consular’s residence to the maze-like alleys of Shinjuku, one of Tokyo’s entertainment districts, intent on finding new coordinates for himself, looking for the mythic room of the novel’s title.
Much of the author’s personal history emerges here. As with his fictional hero, Levy’s mother was Polish-Ame...read more