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-American and his father was Jewish; the latter served in the diplomatic corps posted in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and eventually Japan where Levy began his immersion in the Japanese language. His very name trails a complex heritage. Levy’s father named him “Hideo” in honor of a Japanese-American friend who was interned in America’s camps during World War II. Clearly, Levy, more than most, has negotiated many distances among people, cultures, languages, and histories, but none of us are immune to the dislocations of time. Even armchair readers with no interest in Japan will find it absorbing to retrace the social, cultural and political distances between today and the apex of American power in the 1960s. As we return to the fall of 1963, when young Ben walks from his working class neighborhood in Arlington to the cemetery where the nation mourns its slain president, we are called upon to survey how far we have come. As we read about an earlier disastrous war in Asia, we may wonder if our nation’s long wars have gotten us anywhere. The translator tells us that the novel “will always be lost in translation, as the cliché goes, never fully at home,” but the point may be that this is true of all nations and all of us, never more so than during the postwar years of relentless globalization.
In Star-Spangled Banner, the tensions within 1960s America are re-enacted abroad. Among the Church-going Americans thronging a Yokohama hotel for brunch, a middle-aged white woman stares at Ben Issac’s family, showing her displeasure “like someone who had smelled a fart during High Mass.” The reason for her distaste is that Ben’s father, the balding Jacob Issac, is dining with his much younger second wife, Gui-lan, who is Chinese and their black-haired seven-year-son Jeffrey as well as the blonde-haired Ben. Ben’s own mother has been consigned to the bedraggled outskirts of Washington, D.C. where she struggles with depression while working as a waitress. This family, representative of the diasporic energies of the twentieth century, is buffeted by mainstream racism and sexual insecurities, but finds no solidarity within itself.
The tensions within the Issac family recapitulate the tension between China and Japan. Ben’s father loves the reason and strength of the Chinese language, the stern complexities of written characters marching in columns down the page. Ben, from the moment he discovers a Japanese book left behind in Taiwan by a retreating colonialist, adores the gestural Japanese syllabary that flits like butterflies dancing among the stolid kanji similar to Chinese orthography. When asked about the family’s religion, Ben’s father automatically replies, “We’re Confucian.” But Confucianism, even as the ironic posture it is here, cannot hold this family together. Ben’s father left Ben’s mother for “China,” while Ben wants to embrace “Japan.” The history of violent opposition between these nations becomes an all-purpose analogy for oppositions between between father and son, men and women, heterosexuality and homosexuality, logic and dreaminess, the political and the personal. Even from the non-conformities of his non-conformist family, Ben stands apart, distanced from both parents and without affective connection to his stepmother or half brother. The world he wants to enter is neither the cosmopolitan rationality of China nor the Japan of his father with its protective walls of extraterritoriality. Nor is it the world of foreign students in Tokyo reading New Yorker cartoons in their own special lounge, resisting the Japanese students eager not for communication or friendship but for language practice. What he wants, he gradually realizes, is a place beyond all such national rigidities.
Ben begins his formal study of Japanese at “W University” as the translation calls it, mimicking the Japanese practice of referring to people and places (in this case most probably Waseda Daigaku, one of Japan’s most illustrious private universities) by letters from the phonetic alphabet. Even at W, however, there is no escape from the conundrums of distance. Between the Japanese and non-Japanese students, and even among the Japanese themselves, these distances are constantly being reasserted. The protesters chanting against the Japan-American Security Treaty (ANPO) that is dragging Japan into the Vietnam War have formed factions, carefully coded by the color of their helmets.
Among the Japanese students visiting the foreign student lounge, the gulf between the metropole and the provinces, and between those who want only to master a foreign tongue and those who seek a personal connection across the language barrier, is strikingly illuminated by the figure of Ando. This moon-faced young man speaks in a provincial dialect that makes his fellow students sneer, but Ando does not seem to care. With easy dignity, he befriends Ben with unforced naturalness. Ando does not use Ben as source of linguistic practice. He is uninterested in English now that he has passed the requirements of university entrance exams. Instead, Ando, a non-conformist and outsider in many of the same ways as Ben, slips into the role of a generous, brilliant teacher, playing Anne Sullivan to Ben’s Helen Keller, writing kanji on the palm of his hand, guiding him through the narrow urban streets, pointing him to the alluring lights of Shinjuku, the Tokyo district that comes to symbolize the knowledge that Ben seeks. Together, through subtle physical attraction and gentle tutelage, Ben and Ando find a way to connect beyond the strictures of language and nationality. Even before he has ever been there, Ben is able to tell Ando that he “knows Shinjuku” and Ando’s smiling round face sends “a clear message: ‘Course ya do. ‘Course ya know it.’” In showing Ben a shortcut to Shinjuku, Ando shows Ben a way home.
At times, it is difficult to decipher whether the author’s tone is earnest or ironic, a determination made even more difficult by reading the novel in translation twenty years after its original publication (and fifty years after the period it describes). For instance, there is a mildly erotic scene in the Japanese public bath where Ando and Ben sometimes go after classes. It is not the fact of the communal bath that is of interest here — like many Japanese homes at the time, Ando’s student boarding house does not provide bathing facilities so going to a public bath shared with neighborhood families is part of the rhythm of daily life — but rather the moment when Ben “compares his own pale, meager torso to Ando’s firm, beautiful body, which seemed to capture the essence of Greek sculpture. In Ando’s lean shoulders, chest, and legs, Ben saw the body of a man who had been steeped in a single culture since birth.” What is the reader to make of the equation drawn between “Greek sculpture” and a Japanese body “steeped in a single culture since birth”? Ando, in being so purely Japanese, embodies a Western ideal while Ben Issac, creature of many cultures and habitué of none, looks, as Ando remarks, “more Oriental than I do.” The reader wonders if the juxtaposition between the West and the Orient is being made by Ben the character or by Levy the author. Does it sardonically underscore the power of Western ideals, or participate in upholding those standards of perfection?
But one thing is clear enough: Ben’s search for an ethnic or national identity complements his search for a sexual one. One of the crystalline moments in the novel is an exchange between Ben and a woman of “about fifty” with “the air of a bar madam.” As the snow drifts down, she calls to him in Japanese “Cold, ain’t it?” but in a man’s voice. “Ben’s jaw dropped. For a moment, he couldn’t think straight, the words in his head getting mixed up. Looking up at the drag queen staring down at him as though waiting for an answer, Ben let loose the only words he could think of for such a situation. ‘You can say that again.’ Hearing the voice of a Japanese person come out of Ben’s mouth, the drag queen laughed raspily. ‘You sure can, sister,’ he said. It was the laugh of a kindred spirit.” In that moment, the drag queen shows Ben Issac that “identity” is a choice rather than a predetermined destiny, and that “home” is something we must make for ourselves.
A Room Where the Star-Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard thankfully escapes the tired trope of Japan as a mirror for the West. There is a long history in literature of such mirrors, like the one in the Buddhist temple where Lafcadio Hearn views only his own face in Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (1894), or the erotic mirrors where later visitors see themselves reflected anew, as in John Whittier Treat’s Great Mirrors Shattered (1999): emerging Adonises shedding their American ordinariness. In searching for a room where the strains of the American national anthem cannot be heard, Ben Issac seeks not himself, not a transformed reflection of himself, but a connection with others. This point is driven home repeatedly as though rebuking the narcissism of other foreigners. We are told, in fact, that “since running away from home, Ben made every effort not to look at mirrors.” In the novel’s very last sentences, Ben again refuses his mirroring: “the reflection of the pale white gaijin face in the glass door grew bigger and bigger. Closing his eyes, Ben pushed the face aside and walked out.” What Ben wants is not a mirror but a window: an opening onto the world, beyond self and beyond nationality.