The Maid by Tsutsui Yasutaka and translated by Adam Kabat was beckoning to me where it sat pretty and new in the library shelf. Unknown to me at first glance, The Maid (家族八景, or Kazoku Hakkei also titled What the Maid Saw) was originally written in 1972. I tried to read the book in the context of the year 1972, but as a true classics goes it is timeless, what the maid saw in every household is as relevant as it is in today’s household.
The Maid is a collection of 8 short stories (家族八景, translated literally to “family eight scenes”, i.e. 8 scenes of family), with a new household beginning on a new chapter. Nanase possesses superpower and the ability to read other people’s minds. She could open and close the latches and let other people’s thoughts flow in to her, and she could trace inner thoughts for a distance of few kilometres away. Working as a live-in maid, she is inevitably drawn into the lives, thoughts and desires of her employers, with both dangerous and hilarious consequences. When faced with danger, Nanase does the inevitable, she fled. She fled to get herself out of danger and also because she doesn’t want the world to know her secret (not a convincing excuse, but that’s the way it goes in the story).
TsuTsui strips away the veneer of orderliness and formality of the Japanese society and exposes the dark side of it – a lewd retired man who loses his respect from his family members because of not bringing in income; the subservient wife who are silent and un-opinionated in a family whose son and daughter do not even respect her; infidelities that are played out in secret and couples who kept mum about it to maintain a pseudo familial harmony; an artist who thinks completely in the abstract – shapes, colors and all, but yet sells very few of his pieces and his wife no longer able to take such non-productivity; the suppressed sexual urges of men in their home territories so on and so forth.
Nanase’s development as a character is shallow. Although with such superpower, she is at heart a young girl and because of her naivety she places herself in danger.
The prose is sparse but the book makes an interesting read. The first few stories are wonderful read, but due to its plot predictability, the stories go through a lull in the middle. The last story is particularly disturbing. TsuTsui did not intend to paint a perfect, morally upright Nanase as character. Face with a decision to do the right thing, Nanase is not compel to act upon them, but rather remain in the background and let things unfold by itself.
Initially the multiple conversations (the real and mind reading ones) that “transmit” provide an intriguing read. The characters converse on a superficial formal manner but then you “listen in” on what goes through their heads, mostly just poisonous and horrid thoughts. It is one dimensional simplistic assumption that all private thoughts are evil. Where are the good people? None, because this book has no place for them.
Only one of Nanase’s experience has a happy ending.
What I really like about the book and I suspect for the same reason TsuTsui wrote the book “Hell” was his motivation to embed elements of moral teaching in each of his stories. For the first few pages I found a lot of gems of moral advice:
The necessity of white noise in a dysfunctional family:
It dawned upon Nanase that this semblance of family harmony had been precariously maintained by the background noise coming from the television. Once it had been turned off, the family was assailed by a suffocating silence. There was nothing left to do but to go to bed.
The psychology of one who is used to live in filth:
Thanks to their common mind and metabolism they had submerged themselves in a mire, their filth enveloped in a comfortably tepid stench. Now that this filth had been exposed, it pushed its way towards the surface of their consciouness. And the instigator of all this was none other than the 18-year-old maid who had arrived the day before.
The end of a middle-aged woman who lives in self-denial:
She was killed by our modern age – this crazy age where the youth cult if running rampant. There’s no doubt about it. Because you see. She too was taken in by these modern advertisements spouting their ridiculous elixirs for rejuvenation, and with an unswerving belief that as long as she had desire she could maintain her youth for ever, she never even dreamt that she would be middle-aged. It was this frantic youth-centred age that made her think this way. She was killed by our crazy society. Absolutely, Because, you see….
Entertaining with lots of dark humour. I look forward to read Paprika or Hell for his next book.
Have you read any of Yasutaka Tsutsui novels? If no, would you want to? If yes, which are the ones you like best?
Paperback. [Alma Books, 2010, originally published in Japanese in 1972], [217 pages], [Setting: 70’s Japan], [Library Loot], translated by Adam Kabat. Finished reading at 28th September 2010.
About the writer:
Yasutaka Tsutsui (筒井 康隆 Tsutsui Yasutaka, September 24, 1934 – ) is a Japanese novelist, science fiction author, and actor born in Osaka. Along with Shinichi Hoshi and Sakyo Komatsu, he is one of the most famous science fiction writers in Japan. His Yumenokizaka bunkiten won the Tanizaki Prize in 1987. He has also won the 1981 Izumi Kyoka award, the 1989 Kawabata Yasunari award, and the 1992 Nihon SF Taisho Award. In 1997, he was decorated as a Chevalier Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government.
His work is known for its dark humour and satirical content. He has often satirized Japanese taboos such as disabilities and the Tenno system, and has been victim to much criticism as a result. From 1993 to 1996, he went on a writing-strike to protest the excessive, self-imposed restraint of Japanese publishers.