22. ‘Plainsong’ by Kazushi Hosaka

The Book:

It may be small, but this is an absolutely fascinating and thought-provoking little book. On one level it is the – somewhat mundane – story of a man living in Tokyo. He drifts along, going to work whenever he can be bothered, earning more money than he can spend, and leaving cans of food outside his apartment for the neighbourhood cats. After a while a couple of friends and acquaintances come to visit, and they end up staying. There is Akira, his girlfriend Yoko, and Shimada. Filmmaker Gonta also stops by, and this is the character whose voice most seems to resemble that of Hosaka himself.

The story is told in quite a melancholic tone of voice, reflecting how disconnected from his life and other people the narrator feels. There is very little in the way of action – this is very much a character driven story. And it is utterly brilliant.

Some of the characters like to bet on horse races. One places random bets, choosing to place his money in the hands of chaos. Another believes in the conspiracy that all the races are planned beforehand by a secret committee, and he uses various crackpot theories to work out who the intended winner is: he bets according to his belief in a higher system. The narrator places his bets, at one point, according to the whimsical things a woman says about the horses: he trusts symbols and signs. None of them end up having more success than any of the others, but the ways in which they bet are representative of the ways in which it’s possible to live. You could believe in chaos, predetermination, or signs from the universe, but ultimately it all boils down to the same thing. It’s all just a question of how you choose to spend your time.

Gonta was possibly my favourite character. He makes films and has his camera running almost all the time, but he never films the main action in daily life. He films people who are being spoken to, rather than the speaker, or people in idle conversation, rather than the thing they are looking at and talking about. This is precisely what Hosaka does in the story. The blurb for this book reads: “Hosaka’s work chronicles the small moments, the moments without conflict, that most novels work to elide.” Gonta’s discussions of his own work lead to some simply wonderful moments of meta-fiction.

“‘You can’t write a novel where nothing happens. You can’t just depict the simple passage of time in writing.'”

Towards the end there is a conversation in a boat: there is no description, only several pages of pure dialogue. It is written just as people would speak, and they are not discussing anything really important. It is interesting precisely because it does not appear to be. It is just the bare bones of people, interacting and enjoying each other’s company.

There is no grand, over-arching story here. After the book ends there is nothing else, no suggestion for the future, just the implication that the characters will carry on doing much the same as they have been: feeding local cats that will never trust them, making plans that only occasionally come to fruition, meeting and parting without any great feeling of ceremony or drama. But for all its seeming dullness, I found ‘Plainsong’ both deeply moving and profound.

“I want to show people that the life we live has nothing to do with the stories that you see in movies or novels, where everything is simplified and dramatic and exciting. Our lives are our stories.”

The Background:

When I went to Shortstoryville I managed to restrain myself and not buy the three new short story collections that were on offer. But I did buy this book, for three reasons: the intriguing blurb, the Japanese name (I love Murakami, I was not disappointed with Hosaka), and the fact that the cover was so sparse and felt a bit like rubber.


If you enjoyed my review, why not buy the book and let me know what you think?

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