Friday, April 22, 2011

The Maid

Those who've seen a television or movie adaptation of  "Nanase Futatabi"" or perhaps read the manga "Telepathic Wanderers" would no doubt remember its heroine being hunted down by a secret organization intent on eliminating those with paranormal abilities. This book features the same Nanase Hiita only earlier in the timeline, prior to the events narrated in the second installment of the series. What's interesting though is that while the second novel has been the subject of numerous television and movie adaptations, the first book alone had an English translation.  

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She didn't know when it started but for as long as she could remember, Nanase Hiita always had the ability to read people's minds. Knowing that her telepathic powers would earn the ire and revulsion of the people around her if discovered, she decided to work as a maid to remain transient and inconspicuous, moving from one family to another, going wherever her line of work would take her.

Through the years, she's trained herself to control her powers, ever careful not to let it slip that she knew more than what she was told. However with her extraordinary ability to peer into people's thoughts and hidden desires, it was inevitable for her not to be drawn into the drama---nay, the farce that made up her employers' lives. Each household carried its own tale and each member had his own secret, but Nanase could see through the lies; for she knew better, she knew what was going on.

 Described as a picaresque journey into the inner sanctum of the lives and psyches of ordinary Japanese people, Yasutaka Tsutsui's The Maid is a deceptively simple piece of literature that harps on the age old adage not to judge a book by its cover made possible by a touch of the paranormal. Divided into eight chapters, representing eight households that Nanase Hiita has come to serve, Yasutaka Tsutsui cleverly presents a somewhat dismal portrait of the modern family steeped in intrigue and personal turmoil as observed by a cynical, unsympathetic outsider.

Written in 1972, The Maid  isn't so much a paranormal thriller like its sequel but plays out more as an anthology that makes use of old-fashioned storytelling techniques in tackling a central theme. On the surface, it's about the lies that people tell to each other and the things that they can't say; to a certain extent, it also explores man's base desires, the ones that are kept hidden and suppressed under the social order. As a satire, it can be considered as an unflinching critique of a society where the appearance of propriety and the observance of niceties transcend any act of impropriety or moral transgression.  It can also be argued as a harbinger of the slow but steady disintegration of the family unit that plagues today's society as inter-generational ties get broken and people increasingly fail to commit and communicate with each other on a personal level.
Everyone in the family knew their roles. They'd roam through the house with malice in their hearts, avoiding physical contact at any cost, and adopting poses they had mastered from soap operas.
The book is essentially a bundle of contradictions---on one hand, there are aspects of it that remain oddly relevant and haunting despite some notably archaic touches to certain chapters, on the other, it merely rehashes familiar storylines with very little regard for style or exposition. All the characters featured in it are generally vile and atrocious, in the midst of a breakdown or in denial of the truth, making them easily recognizable as common domestic tropes. There's the philandering husband, the suspicious trophy wife, the restless elderly and resentful children just to name a few, and these assortment of characters serve not only to tell minute stories but also to highlight culture-bound concerns framed in such a way as to produce both tragic and hilarious results. The issues confronted by the characters in the novel are familiar, even a tad universal; where a woman's frantic quest to remain youthful, a married couple's longing for greener pasture leads them to contemplate starting an affair with their neighbors, and an painter's narcissistic attitude spills onto his artwork reflect the worse of man's fears, selfishness and ambition. And yet despite this tired scheme, this collection of stories is undeniably Japanese and firmly rooted in modern culture. The context in which these stories are told bravely whittles through traditional preconceptions, going as far as to call attention to the duplicity in the observance of time-honored values in Japanese society such as modesty, discipline and hierarchy.  

It's hard to judge The Maid based on character and plot development because the novel in itself is episodic and choppy. Furthermore, very little is known of its heroine by the end of the story. In this regard, Nanase serves as nothing more than a conduit, a means by which the writer can cross the private and public divide and intrude upon his characters' thoughts and convey their feelings. There is an economy of words used, none of which would hit hard like a sledgehammer, but if there's one thing that can be said about this book is that the language used matched its indeterminate tone. Things are not always what they seem as every chapter often demonstrates the opposite of that which Nanase has come to expect would occur.

Writer Yasutaka Tsutsui utilizes an interesting technique to lull the reader into a false sense of reality, peppering the book with simple, seemingly inconsequential sentences that would eventually be discarded or negated, drawing attention to something and then dismissing it altogether, thus:
Red flowers were blooming in the front yard, but Nanase had no idea what they were; the names of the flowers did not interest her. 
Here's another example from the second chapter wherein the first sentence is dismissed by the one succeeding it, throwing the reader for a loop:
Every household has its own smell. Sometimes only the people who live there can perceive it; in other cases the reverse is true. Often the smell does not really exist but is only a psychologically induced association.
The language used is far from being descriptive yet there's a good amount of negation and misdirection involved if one were to pay close attention to the tight, conventional prose. Each chapter offers a premise that would eventually be shattered, as if to remind the reader that his telepathic guide is far from infallible and often guilty of misjudging people. Perhaps what's most interesting of all is that despite having some insight as to what motivates the characters to act the way they do, they can hardly be considered as predictable or manageable as Nanase can attest to---there's more to the floating landscape that makes up the consciousness of a simple housewife; an unspeakable fury locked within the saintly appearance of a neglected spouse; and a predatory instinct that burns inside a bored, seemingly harmless senior. The stories may appear drab and familiar but there's always that element of surprise, the possibility of discovering something new, for ultimately, human beings are complex creatures. 


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