Postcard from Tokyo: With one foot in the mudswamp: Richard Lloyd Parry meets a writer who tells Japanese stories in a Midlands accent

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The Independent Culture
CLIVE COLLINS is the best English-language writer in Japan, and if that sounds like faint praise, it needn't. The novelist Shusaku Endo famously described his homeland as 'a mudswamp . . . no matter what shoots one tries to transplant here from another country, they all wither and die' - and plenty of established literary talents have come a squelchy cropper here.

Jay McInerney came out to learn karate and wrote Ransom, full of corny, sub-Hemingway machismo and spurious local colour ('he picked up his katana, made by the great swordsmith Yasukuni of the Soshu Branch of the Sagami School'). The best that Clive James, a Japanese speaker and regular visitor, could come up with was the smirking Brmm] Brmm]. Only one writer, British in all but name, has filtered Japanese characters into English with any conviction, and even then through a misty, historical lens: Kazuo Ishiguro, after all, left Nagasaki when he was a toddler. Since the 19th century, Tokyo has been awash with foreign missionaries and academics, with diplomats, journalists and English teachers. There have been dazzling essays, shrewd travel books, exemplary works of history and reportage. Why has nobody produced a decent novel?

By his own admission, Clive Collins hasn't quite managed it either, although the short story collection Misunderstandings (Marion Boyars, pounds 14.95), which won a Macmillan Silver Pen award earlier this year, comes closer than anything since Ishiguro's An Artist of the Floating World.

It's his third book, the successor to two novels, both set in Japan: Sachiko's Wedding, the first person account of a woman on the verge of an arranged marriage; and The Foreign Husband, the desolate story of an Englishman who flees unemployment and an adulterous wife for Tokyo, English-teaching and an affair with a Japanese woman who accompanies him - catastrophically - back to Britain. Despite the standard fly-leaf disclaimer, the story, at least in outline, is plainly autobiographical: like his character, Collins returned home from five years in West Africa, and left for a teaching job in Japan; like him, he was a frustrated writer, with two rejected manuscripts in his desk.

'I wanted to consider why people leave a country,' he says, 'and what it is that brings them back. Foreign men and Japanese women are both, in different ways, alienated over here. They tend to seek one another out, and one of the tragedies of these relationships is that often they go into them looking for different things. But the novel didn't know whether it wanted to to talk about expatriates, or a Japanese woman; as a whole, I don't like it.'

The theme of thwarted escape from marriage, routine, convention, the fear of failure runs through all Collins' writing, and, you sense, through much of his own life. He was born in 1948, the late offspring of an Irish family in Leicester (he still speaks, even in Japanese, with a pronounced Midlands accent). His father, maimed as a boy soldier in the First World War, died when Clive was 11; with three much older sisters, he became 'a compulsive liar - I invented people, played by myself, acted out dreams'.

After school, he at first turned down a place at university ('frightened of being shown up') and after gritting his teeth through two years at the University of Ulster, he nearly blew it again with a prolonged flirtation with hippiedom ('Years later I would see myself caricatured as Neil in The Young Ones').

An abortive career as a postgraduate was followed by five years teaching in Sierra Leone, then five years of unemployment working on an unpublishable novel. Finally, in 1983 he left for Japan where he has lived ever since. When he visits Britain with his Japanese wife and child next spring it will be his first trip home in six years.

Misunderstandings displays the benefits of this 11-year immersion in his adopted country. Gone is the uneasy travel writing, the stagy sprinkling of exoticisms. The achievement of these stories lies in their mastery of what eludes so many other books about Japan: an appropriate tone, a speaking voice. Sachiko's Wedding was an ambitious attempt to imitate translated, formal Japanese; the new stories go to the other stylistic extreme. The best of them - like 'A Slight Misunderstanding', about a woman in a take-away lunch-box shop who becomes hopelessly infatuated with an unattainable female customer - are accomplished dramatic monologues in regional idiom, more Alan Bennett than Yukio Mishima.

Two of the stories, and his next novel, are set in the Leicester of his childhood, a nostalgic world of Vimto, pale ale and something-for- the-weekend-sir? - a world that is not so far, Collins has discovered, from contemporary Tokyo. 'When I first came here,' he says, 'it was like Britain in the Fifties. There was a quaintness: the buses still had wooden floors, and that institutional, disinfectant smell; the little cinemas showing third-run features, just like the ones in Leicester. It was deja vu.

'I want to present Japanese people as perfectly ordinary. I don't subscribe to the Gilbert and Sullivan caricatures, or the myths that the Japanese promote about themselves. This could be Britain, except it's my exaggeration. That's what I want to convey in my Japanese stories: my sense of Japanese people not as exotic creatures, but as perfectly ordinary human beings.'

Clive Collins plans to leave Japan in three years time ('Eleven is too long. I'm way past my sell-by date'). In the meantime he'll continue to live with one foot in the mudswamp, quietly telling Japanese stories in a Leicester accent.

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