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In Search of a Distant Voice, by Taichi Yamada, trans Michael Emmerich

A ghost in the state's machine

How can the supernatural story sneak back into realistic literature? Since the ghostly tales of Henry James a century ago, the best answer has involved plots that straddle the hazy border between mental disturbance and uncanny events that somehow resist reduction to the level of delusion. The disquieting suggestion that it's not - quite - all in the mind may linger, for rationalist readers, like grit in the shoe of the soul.

Taichi Yamada from Japan - where ghostly fictions still flourish - excels at this dual perspective. Just as haunting, and haunted, as his novel Strangers, In Search of a Distant Voice presents another fragile loner whose hallucinations - auditory rather than visual, this time - clearly stem from a troubled past. But a dark margin lurks beyond any psychiatric diagnosis, and on that margin Yamada spins his eerie magic.

Topically enough, this is a novel with an immigration officer at its centre. Tsuneo, once a rebellious drifter on the US Pacific Coast before his return to Tokyo and respectability, enforces border controls - both in his public and private life. He rounds up paper-less South Asian workers even though he feels pangs of sympathy with them. Then, while chasing some Bangladeshis, he hears a woman's disembodied voice and feels "a gush of delicious sweetness".

Who, or what, is she? His conversations with this teasing, tempting spirit lead Tsuneo back to the trauma of his time in Oregon, and memories of a gay affair with an antiques dealer whom the guilty migrant (then an "illegal" himself) had betrayed. Simply but deftly, Yamada shows how this divided man's struggle to police his feelings links with Japan's "extraordinarily narrow" way of life. Tsuneo wrecks his marriage plans but fails to grasp the freedom he half-craves, and half-dreads.

That sweet voice brings the return of the repressed, but also speaks of a very Japanese melancholy, as if desire must always slip out of human reach. When the voice offers to meet in fleshly form, she - or it - forever recedes behind the next corner, the next tree... However one interprets this fugitive spirit, Yamada counts the cost of neurotic gate-keeping - in the self, and the state - with a subtle sadness. Amid the "unremarkable bustle" of the well-patrolled city, we may drop into "stagnant pools of inconceivably intense solitude". From those pools, ghosts arise.

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