Friday, 3 October 2014

Book Review: I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flašar if a person can no longer bear the constant pressure and competition of modern society? What if this person feels the need to withdraw from the world hiding away in a safe place (like the parents’ home) and refusing social intercourse for weeks, months, years, even decades on end? The Japanese call such a person a “hikikomori”. It’s a piece of recent Austrian literature that acquainted me with the term. I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flašar tells the story of a twenty-year-old “hikikomori” making his first hesitating steps out of self-chosen isolation and of a fifty-six-year-old man who lost his office job and doesn’t dare to tell his wife. They pass their days in the park on benches opposite each other, until the old approaches the young and inspires him to talk. 

Milena Michiko Flašar was born in Sankt Pölten, Austria, in 1980 to a Japanese mother and an Austrian father. After high school she studied Comparative Literature, German and Romance philology in Vienna and Berlin. She made her literary debut in the early 2000s and has published several short stories in anthologies and literary journals since. Her first book titled Ich bin (I am) came out in 2008 and was followed by Okaasan. Meine unbekannte Mutter (Okaasan. My Unknown Mother) two years later, but only her novel I Called Him Necktie (Ich nannte ihn Krawatte: 2012) brought first commercial success and the literary breakthrough. Milena Michiko Flašar lives as a writer and teacher of German as a foreign language in Vienna, Austria.

The plot of I Called Him Necktie is set in the anonymity of a typical Japanese metropolis. On a February morning twenty-year-old Taguchi Hiro timidly ventures back into life and society after having locked himself up in his room at his parents’ and having avoided social contact even with father and mother for two years. As a “hikikomori” he is not just an outsider, but also a disgrace to his family because he obviously is too weak to dutifully play his role in society like everybody else. It costs him a big effort to leave his room and his house although he really longs to get out of the prison that he built for himself. The hustle and bustle in the streets overwhelms him and the mere idea that his trouser-leg could accidentally touch the rim of another person’s coat, or even worse, that his eyes could meet those of somebody else for a split second makes him feel so sick that he has to haste into the park to vomit. He settles down on a bench by a cedar tree and begins to pass every day there getting gradually used to vibrant life around him. On a morning in May a typical Japanese salary man wearing a white shirt and a grey suit with a grey and red striped necktie appears seemingly out of nowhere on the bench on the other side of the path. He is in his fifties and just sits there the whole day long with his leather brief-case by his side, a newspaper to pass his time reading and obviously homemade bentō for lunch. The two men see each other every day, they observe each other, and although they don’t talk, they cease to be strangers. One day Taguchi Hiro gives him a name – Necktie – and their attitude to each other changes. Before long they greet with a shy wave or with a discreet nod, until one Thursday morning the salary man joins the narrator on his bench and introduces himself as Ōhara Tetsu. He pours out his heart to Taguchi Hiro. He talks about how he was fired from his job because he couldn’t keep pace with his younger colleagues anymore and that he didn’t dare to tell his wife Kyōko. Taguchi Hiro keeps silent at first, but as time passes, he begins to open up to Ōhara Tetsu and eventually tells him the entire story that led him to become a “hikikomori”. The two outcasts of society become friends of sorts.

As indicates already the title of I Called Him Necktie (the English translation is literal), the novel is the first-person narrative of Taguchi Hiro, the twenty-year-old “hikikomori”, who tells his and Ōhara Tetsu’s story in retrospect. The plot is just as simple and unspectacular as true life happens to be more often than not, but it offers insights into human souls that have been mutilated, almost crushed by the cruel demands of our modern, increasingly competitive society. In some respects the mindset of the two protagonists may seem rather strange to most of us, while we are only too familiar with others of their experiences, feelings and thoughts. Thus the novel is a tender and also poetic character study of two protagonists representing two large groups of society who are often marginalised today because they can’t withstand the growing as well as constant pressure and have problems to keep functioning in society, namely the young who aren’t tough enough and the old who no longer succeed to muster up the required strength of body and mind. The general tone of the novel is quiet, sometimes even contemplative or melancholic, which is adequate considering the story told. Milena Michiko Flašar’s language is clear and unpretentious although in several places the author preferred to use subtle insinuations instead of just giving the rude facts. In German it certainly was a pleasure to read this short novel and I can only hope that the English translation doesn’t just convey the meaning of the words, but also the beauty of the writing.

All things considered, I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flašar is a short novel which is quickly read and which makes think about how we usually deal with other people, ie without consideration for their very own needs and limits. The “hikikomori” in me just loved the story. In fact, I devoured the book in less than a day and I really long to reread it soon. For all those who would like to know how a recluse – especially in a Japanese surrounding – feels and thinks, this may be the perfect novel to start with. I also recommend it to everyone who wants to try some contemporary Austrian literature for a change. Amazingly it took only two years for the English translation to come out, often it’s 20+ years… or never.

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