A Web of Stories: Part 1
I have an old tumblr: Ser Jacob de Zoet, where I did literary analysis of David Mitchell’s work. As I will be continuing the series, I am importing the old posts onto this new blog.
Who was blowing on the nape of my neck?
Synopsis: A racist, anti-capitalist Japanese man checks into an Okinawan hotel as his terrorist cell collapses in the aftermath of the Tokyo sarin gas attacks.
The events of this section revolve around one of the perpetrators of a 1995 terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway. And while a lot of the things Quasar (or Keisuke Tanaka) says about the fellowship and his role in the attacks seem straight out of a 1940s racial purists fantasy, this thing existed and committed the crimes claimed. His Serendipity(Shoko Asahara) and many of the other higher ups were actually just only executed a few weeks ago (July,6 2018). In fact the fellowship still exists today too, known outside the confines of the novel as Aum Shinrikyo, having “renounced” its violent past.
This is connection with the real world is interesting, but it does not explain why Mitchell choose this particular jumping off point for his universe trotting adventures. I have a couple ideas.
The Human World is Made of Stories
In school I was taught many, many times about the holocaust. About how the Germans, either through indifference or outright hatred, participated in the murder of six million Jews. I was told this over and over, to ensure that it “never happened again”. I’m sure in Germany that it is even more extreme.
Yet something that we hardly ever touched on, at least not until high school, was the similarly racist attitudes of the Japanese. They believed their emperor was a god and they were his chosen. Koreans, Chinese, American prisoners of war and all of their other opponents, vanquished or not, were treated like objects, not human beings. This culture did not appear overnight (see this Dan Carlin podcast for an interesting story about its origins) and unlike in Germany, it was not eradicated after the Second World War.
Quasar’s thoughts are direct proof of this. He remarks that “these okinawans were never pure-blooded Japanese. Different, weaker ancestors” (2). That “Americans are not a very bright race”(7).. That “we have all been betrayed by a society evolving into markets and for Disney and McDonald’s. All that sacrifice, to build what? To build an unsinkable aircraft carrier for the United States”(8). That “the real atrocity is the modern world’s systematic slaughter of man’s oneness with his anima”(10). Quasar lionizes the Japanese race and its pre-WW2 obsession with strength to exclusion of all else. And he takes the “master race” idea a step further, and excludes those Japanese who do not agree with him.
These ideas, as presented by Quasar are incredibly unnuanced. He could be a walking propaganda poster for the fellowship and it’s totalitarian ideas. The walking embodiment of hatred. Something that we in the West are supposed to completely vilify. And on my first read through I absolutely despised Quasar. But he is not to blame for the way he is. He’s merely a pawn in the story of Japan, and the way he is because of the cultural and personal forces pushing on his psyche.
Everything is about wanting
Despite his avowed anti-capitalism, Quasar is very much driven by his desires, just like the rest of us. He tries to deny this, refusing to interface with his sexuality, and retreating into adulation of his Serendipity when his reasons for supporting the fellowship are pulled into question in the hotel.
The thin woman looked at me as she spoke. “You’d have to ask them yourself. Maybe there are many answers. Some get a kick out of self-abasement and servitude. Some are afraid or lonely. Some crave the camaraderie of the persecuted. Some want to be a big fish in a small pond. Some want magic. Some want revenge on teachers who promised success would deliver all. They need shinier myths that will never be soiled by becoming true”(23)
Quasar is for lack of a better word “triggered” by this. Because all of these things are true about the man who used to be called Keisuke Tanaka. He constantly cleanses himself and denies physical pleasures like cigarettes and sexual release. He is certainly lonely: he constantly dreams of forging human connections (especially with women) and hears the voice of His Serendipity in everything. He seems to both love and fear the idea that he is being hunted: he sees potential captors in every one of the unclean. Keisuke also craves recognition: one of his fondest memories of being a novice is discovering that “he had been discussed”. The alpha waves, the cleansing, the talking through nature are all examples of magic he believes in. Finally, and most importantly, he wants revenge on all of the adult figures that made his childhood hell: the father that never loved him and Mr. Ikeda, a teacher who participated in a cruel joke that pretended Keisuke was dead. All of these things are very human things to want, and this makes Quasar so much more than a monster. Into someone that can be redeemed.
The her that lived in her looked out through her eyes and through my eyes and at the me that lives in me
And this brings me to the reason that David Mitchell choose this character to start of his body of work. If he can make us sympathize with a fanatical, racist fascist and understand the reasons for him being so warped, we can understand and sympathize with every character in this book. It is recognizing this humanity in the baby on the subway that nearly causes Quasar to not pull the plug on his gas. And it is this recognition from the villagers in Okinawa that allows Keisuke to hopefully embark on the path to redemption.
Not a soul was stirring in the giant hotel. Hushed corridors stretched into the noontime distance, empty as catacombs.
Where do people who drop off the edge of the world end up?
Things to Keep in Mind
- The comet that His Serendipity promises: is it real?
- Will we hear more about Mr. Ikeda?
- The tunnel dream
- The consciousness that cohabits His Serendipity
- The baby that seemingly knows Quasar
Until next Time, in Tokyo