imageWinner of the Austrian Alpha Literature Prize 2012

Translated from German by Sheila Dickie

Taguchi Hiro is a 20-year old hikikomori – a young man who has not ventured from his bedroom for two years.  He has not spoken to his parents, having shut himself off from all human contact.

Ohara Tetsu is a middle-aged employee, who has just lost his job, but cannot “confess”.  So every day he dresses for the office, leaves the house, and travels to a park bench, where he spends the day before returning home to his wife.

There he meets Taguchi, who is just beginning to take tentative steps at reentering the world.  At first there is little communication,  neither wishing to break out of their shells, but gradually they open up to each other and the full extent of the shame they feel is revealed.

Who would have thought that conversations between two broken souls could be so spell-binding?

At first I thought this was a quirky read.  Then when I googled hikikomori and discovered that there are an estimated 1 million such in contemporary Japan, I realised Flašar is addressing a serious issue.  Ohara Tetsu’s shame at becoming unemployed is something I could feel, although perhaps quite as deeply.  It’s a fact of life in austerity Britain, no longer a point of honour.

The style – short sections, alternating narratives – makes for easy reading.  Yet, as the traumatic events leading to Taguchi’s breakdown are revealed, the cumulative effect is devastating.  Similarly Ohara’s story of his failures as husband and father is extremely moving. At the mid-point I was on the verge of tears.

The tragic losses endured by both shocked me.  Yet it was insightful details that got under my skin; the leitmotif of Ohara’s lunchbox, Taguchi’s realisation of the price his parents were paying for his withdrawal.  In order to cope, they too had become hikikomori of sorts.

For all their flaws, there isn’t an unsympathetic main character in these pages, just circumstances and societal expectations that crush the vulnerable.  While the main mood is profoundly sad, the final word “BEGINNING” sounds a hopeful note. And at that point, my defences cracked and I cried me a river.


© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016