The City of Yes
by Peter Oliva
McClelland & Stewart, 352 pages $21.99
On the cover of The City of Yes, over a muted Hiroshige print and beneath the title, the publisher puts the words, "A Novel." In the acknowledgements at the end of his book, Peter Oliva says "This book is fiction." No doubt some of it is fiction, in the way that a travel journal may contain flights of imagination: after all, the author, in a strange place, is trying to weld unfamiliar components into a comprehensible whole. Oliva's 1993 novel, aptly-named Drowning in Darkness, takes place in a prairie mining town, beneath the earth and in the trough of human despair. That book was literary in the way an Ad Reinhardt canvas is painterly -- thick black layers applied by an unrelenting hand. The City of Yes, described as Oliva's second novel, was created from a softer and more congenial palette. But it is not, in my opinion, a novel.
The nameless narrator goes to Japan in the mid-1990s to teach English in various schools on the Kanto plain. We learn almost nothing of his family, friends, marital status, or profession. He says only that he became interested in Japan after "20 million Japanese balloons had passed over our house, in 1945, on their way east through the Crowsnest Pass" -- an oblique reference to Japan's failed attempt to bomb North America by sending unmanned balloons across the Pacific.
Like most visitors to Japan, he's intrigued by the efforts the Japanese made when, in the middle of the nineteenth century, they suddenly encountered the West after 250 years of isolation. He offers a humorous retelling of the story of the first appearance of Santa Claus in Japan -- pinned to a fifteen-foot cross in a department store display, a perfect example of a cross-cultural blunder. He learns to speak passable Japanese and, in a gripping allegory on sexual warfare, he watches his pet praying mantises destroy one another.
Now a bookseller in Calgary, Oliva taught English at several places on the Kanto plain in the mid-1990s, introduced his pupils to correct Christmas behaviour, learned passable Japanese, and raised a family of crickets. For these, and other reasons, I think of the narrator as "Peter".
While in Japan, Peter becomes aware of Ranald MacDonald (1824-1894), an earlier adventurer with Western Canadian and Japanese connections, and researches his life. MacDonald, the son of a Hudson's Bay man and a Chinook princess, fancied a historic link between Canadian Indians and the Japanese. Peter and Ranald were both obsessed with language, wanted to educate, and were eager to live, for a time, in a strange environment. Peter flew to Tokyo aboard a creaky Aeroflot jet, while MacDonald was purposefully dumped into a small boat on the Sea of Japan, within sight of the Japanese island, Hokkaido, also known as Yesso. From there, he deliberately scuttled his boat and floated ashore on a trunk "full of learning" - thirty-eight books including Spanish, Portuguese, and English dictionaries. He knew that any foreigner would immediately be arrested but that's what he wanted -- to exchange languages with his jailers and write the first Japanese-English dictionary. In 1853, when Commodore Perry anchored in Tokyo Bay, he was met by able interpreters, thanks to MacDonald.
Japan is a marvellous subject to explore, both as geographical entity and imaginative construct, because it is superficially so similar but organically so different. Once past Oliva's dense opening, ("When narrative begins, a story takes to the air in a cataclysm of winged intent") it was a pleasure to share his insights, whether based on real incidents or not. I laughed at the bruising Peter received teaching Kendo, the Japanese military art, to his pupils, and shared his embarrassment when a gangster demanded to know how he could be Canadian if he didn't know about "Amari" -- Anne Murray. I sympathized with his frustration over alien registration, fingerprinting, and laminated identification cards, signs of Japan's xenophobia. I was touched by the story of two Santas, when Peter in his costume, after leading a chorus of "Shingo Balls," met a costumed miniature Santa, the school's cherished retarded boy, who executed a respectful bow.
The language is occasionally translucent, when, for example, cobblestone streets are said to gleam "like wet turtles." But too often, there are howlers. The narrator, a language teacher, complains "even I was bored of it," and, when he finally meets an attractive woman he opines, "our 'discussion' resembled a car, running over a startled deer in slow motion." After excessive use in Canadian letters "the startled deer" should be consigned to a literary abattoir.
Structural problems are more serious. Oliva tells two overlapping stories, his own and MacDonald's, with transitions from one to the other careless and arbitrary, as if they had been written separately, sliced, then shuffled together. This lacklustre performance is surprising in a McClelland & Stewart book by a much-praised author working with an esteemed editor, Ellen Seligman. It's remarkable as well that the incidents in the life of Ranald MacDonald, who lived a century ago, emerge more vividly than the contemporary experiences of the narrator. Perhaps MacDonald's more mysterious journey gave the novelist, Oliva, greater scope: he could embellish the few facts in a stranger's life rather than limit himself to juggling events in a modern tale which so closely resembles his own.