Peter Oliva's The City of Yes (McClelland & Stewart, 336 pages, $17.99 paper, ISBN: 077106862X) is an esoteric travelogue evoking Japan in all its splendour and perplexity. Oliva's narrator is an outsider, perched in bemused authority and drawn inexorably into the shifting stream of that elusive thing Japan. As a teacher of English his first task is to dress up as Santa, roam the schools and hand out sweets. Meanwhile, an effigy of Santa Claus lies pinned to a crucifix at the Saitama department, representing all our consumeristic sins. And so our narrator's own culture is served up oriental style. Fellow teacher Hideo Endo feeds him a series of "floating" stories about a real-life, purposefully shipwrecked Canadian circa 1848. He tells him various elliptical Japanese folktales and introduces him to the Japanese mafia¨and all this in the name of language acquisition and cultural acclimatisation. Oliva and his characters are language obsessed; English as filtered through Japan is certainly hard to resist¨(note: English phrases on Japanese pencil cases "On the Earth. This planet is not only for huma" p50) as is the dance that is played between the cultures when seeking le mot juste. The failures to find the right word are, of course, as meaningful as anything else. Travel is about misunderstanding, about seeking, then finding something unsought for, about arrogance and humility.
The narrator sets out to conquer the banalities of life. He has a job wiping squash ball stripes off a gym wall in Canada; he trades these mundane hieroglyphs for kanji pictographs. A word in any language begins to float, however, when its etymology is located. The concrete becomes abstract and a new story emerges. Thus it is with this book. The journey is sometimes unsettlingly ethereal, shot through with information and imagery which might approach a traditional story here or there but that invariably shifts in meaning before one has the opportunity to latch onto it.
Occasionally the abstractions try to bear too much weight, especially in the section on entomology. Our narrator's obsession with stick bugs and their eating and mating habits provides strong imagery but to what end? Prettiness doesn't serve the narrative need. Meanderings on the Japanese mafia go the same way. There is a love concern in this book, naturally unrequited. The beautiful Japanese student, whose chin crinkles when she laughs and who alone of all the Japanese the narrator has met has managed to throw off her cultural mask, will barely dally with our narrator. She is painfully aware of his foreign-ness, of his identity ("You were leaving," she said, "Always" p306). There is a kind of false tension that never builds¨clearly isn't meant to build. While on the whole the book succeeds in obliging the reader to endure the uncertainty, the slightly off-kilter concerns of the traveler in a foreign land, there were times I longed for plot. Do read this book in order to gain insight into the Japanese culture and language, and into the culture of North America, and that strange emotional landscape of the foreigner. Yes, read it for the journey. ˛