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The Wall, the Gate, the Balcony: The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw

In retrospect, and despite predictions of the ‘death of the novel’, the 1980s were a great decade for fiction. For all sorts of reasons, probably, but two seem paramount. One of them was ‘philosophical’: the advent of ‘theory’. The other had to do with the market. Structuralism – the key year here is 1968 – had been sufficiently absorbed by writers in the English-speaking world to begin to show its mark in the way novels were constructed, and poststructuralism was making inroads. (It should perhaps not go without saying that I speak only of those novelists who were influenced. The great majority went along their old paths regardless.) On the other front – mirroring the extensive impact of the Penguin Modern European Poets series (1965-77) upon poetry a decade earlier – there was Ajai Singh ‘Sonny’ Mehta, who should certainly have received the Nobel Prize for something. Intuition?

Born 1942 in India and schooled in the foothills of the Himalayas, Mehta studied at Cambridge before beginning his publishing career in the late 1960s at Rupert Hart-Davis. He moved on to found Paladin, where his great success was Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970) – which, legend has it, he persuaded her to write. He then joined Pan and became, in 1974, director of its new Picador imprint. His mandate was to bring into English as many as possible of the great contemporary novelists writing in other languages and / or from countries other than the UK and the USA. Picador brought us Gabriel García Márquez, Italo Calvino, Salman Rushdie, Mario Vargas Llosa, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Bruno Schulz, Elias Canetti and, well, so many contemporary international classics that by the 1980s it was almost the benchmark of contemporary literary fiction. I say ‘almost’ because that part of the bookshelf not occupied by Picadors was taken up by books bearing the Faber and Faber insignia. It was Faber, largely under the direction of Robert McCrum, which brought us Josef Skvorecky, Milan Kundera, Czesław Miłosz, Kazuo Ishiguro and others.

In Australia the impact of this narratological watershed was marked, perhaps even profound. Patrick White had already decentred the ‘dun-coloured realism’ of the 1940s and 1950s. This was stage two. The experiments were found in short fiction at first, in the work of Peter Carey and Murray Bail and Frank Moorhouse. Some of the best of it was gathered in Brian Kiernan’s landmark anthology The Most Beautiful Lies (1977), by which point the results were beginning to appear in longer works: Jessica Anderson’s psycho-forensic Tirra Lirra by the River (1978), Carey’s Bliss (1981), Gerald Murnane’s The Plains (1982), and David Malouf’s Child’s Play and Fly Away Peter (both 1982). It built to a kind of peak in 1984-6, with Helen Garner’s The Children’s Bach (1984) and Postcards from Surfers (1985); Carey’s Illywhacker, Beverley Farmer’s Home Time, Marion Campbell’s Lines of Flight (all 1985);  and Elizabeth Jolley’s The Well (1986). It ended with such striking works as Rod Jones’ Julia Paradise (1988), Farmer’s Body of Water (1990) and Mark Henshaw’s Out of the Line of Fire (1988), which Text has just re-released as part of its Classics series.

There was no one style. If I had to characterise what was new about such works, apart from an openness and narratological innovation, it would have to include, first and foremost, textual self-consciousness. Structuralism was seen to have displaced conventional ‘naturalism’ and conventional third person omniscient narration (for example) was seen as naive and deceptive. More and more, writers felt pressure not only to display an awareness of the ‘tricks’ of narrative, but to share them with the reader – as if novels should not only entertain but instruct in the arts of fiction, as if these might somehow also be the arts of life itself. The coolest of novelists not only took this up with enthusiasm, they displayed their awareness of the philosophical background to this situation. Fiction was fiction, yes, but it was also a criticism of itself. The term ‘ficto-criticism’ came into play.

The 1980s was the decade of metafiction, then, but it was also the decade of magic realism. And cosmopolitanism. And eroticism. And post-Freudianism. The best works touched a number of these bases. There were South American flavours (Marquez, Julio Cortazar, Alejo Carpentier, and others of the ‘boom’); there were European flavours (Milan Kundera, Josef Skvorecky, Bohumil Hrabal, Peter Handke). And there were English flavours. One key novel of the period was D. M. Thomas’s The White Hotel (1981), a breathtaking combination of textual self-consciousness, post-Freudian psychology, post-Holocaustism and eroticism. For me – others will doubtless put forth different books – it was The White Hotel that seemed to set a kind of benchmark of literary and creative intensity. It created a recipe that one finds, whether or not the authors themselves were aware of it (call it the Zeitgeist), in some of the Australian works I have listed, perhaps most of all in Julia Paradise and Out of the Line of Fire.

Perhaps, too, The White Hotel was also bearing the first signs of another textual effect of this period of extraordinary exotic projection. Most of the great works that Picador and Faber brought to us were in translation. If one cannot actually say that they were strung between two languages – they had, after all, appeared successfully in their second language – then one can say that they had crossed, as it were, a gap, an abyss of sorts. They seem to bear the traces of this process in their fabric. The effect, while pronounced, is also almost ineffable: a slight, haunting dislocation, that can make it seem, at times, as if their places are more set than setting. It is a mood, if you like – or tone, or tincture – a slight paleness, an elusive atmosphere of irreality that nonetheless left its mark on numerous English-language novelists of the period. It is here, in Henshaw’s novels: a companion at once to their poetry and to their pronounced textual self-consciousness.

The publisher’s website claims that Out of the Line of Fire was one of the best-selling works of Australian literary fiction of the 1980s. I can well understand that. The book has heavy doses of eroticism; it is, as I have just suggested, textually very self-conscious – indeed, it opens with a discussion of the famous opening of Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller (1979). It offers us – its theoretical pedigree – probably far more than it needs of Kant, Hume, Bertrand Russell and others; it displays something of a preoccupation with a Vienna-Salzburg-Klagenfort mythos of Wittgenstein, Handke, Robert Musil, Alban Berg, Manon Gropius and Ingeborg Bachmann. And about ten percent of it is in German, not all of it translated. Perhaps predictably, a number of critics at the time complained of its intellectual pretentiousness. But a) they were complaining about the pretentiousness of a lot of this new fiction (read: ‘I haven’t yet taken the trouble to work out what it’s all about’); and b) damn it’s well written – especially when it gets away from its scaffoldings. At its best and most (deceptively) limpid, one could be reading pages from Kundera or D. M. Thomas or Edmund White.

Christopher Booker famously argued, in The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (2004), that there are seven basic story-lines to which all literature conforms. I think it’s more like a hundred, but hey, Booker supposedly spent 34 years working it out. Henshaw’s plot in Out of the Line of Fire is the one (not one of Booker’s) where a relationship is created, two people become friends – and then one of them disappears. Eventually, a package turns up, usually a journal or a manuscript, and the plot thickens. The narrator, the one-who-has-been-left, who has usually been in some way deeply enthralled by the one-who-has-left, tries to fathom the papers / manuscript / package, then sets off in search.

In this case, the one who is searched for is Wolfi, a fellow graduate student of the Australian narrator’s at the University of Heidelberg (where Hegel taught, where Hölderlin lived, where Heidegger gave some interesting speeches). Wolfi’s professor father, a logical positivist, was once a friend of Wittgenstein, and Wolfi is writing a thesis on Jenseits der
Realitatswahrnehmungsgrenze (‘Beyond the limits of the perception of reality’). But the ‘real’ story would seem to be of sexual awakenings, and chiefly of Wolfi’s apparent infatuation with his sister Elena. This story is decorated, and our imaginations whetted, by vignettes of the loves and sexual intrigues of others – Hölderlin and Suzette Gontard, Heinrich von Kleist and Henriette Vogel, Pirandello and Jenny Schulz-Lander (and Antonietta Portulano, and Lietta), Alban Berg and Hanna Fuchs – as if, within them, there may be clues. Some of the relationship between Wolfi and his sister the narrator has pieced together from hints, conversations and photographs he has seen during his brief friendship with Wolfi. Most of it, however, comes from the package and the thesis: the mysterious clippings, fragments of other stories, the voluminous pages of narrative and confession that it contains. I would tell you more, but it’s a set-up, a sting. I would hate to spoil the potential reader’s pleasure by giving too much away.

Out of the Line of Fire is a first book, but a first book of considerable achievement, promising a great deal more. But then, for a long while, there was silence, or apparently so. For many of us Henshaw, after this glowing start, eventually slipped from mind. There is an assumption, when one has published a successful novel, that one wishes to be a novelist, or at least a novelist-and-…  But why should that be? Henshaw would not be the only prize-winning one-book author Australia has produced. But now, 26 years after the first, Text has released a second novel, The Snow Kimono. It is doubtless to support this publication that the first has been reprinted. Attention has been refocussed. Where has Henshaw been? Has he been silent?

Had I continued to live in the city in which I was born (Canberra), or been a reader of crime fiction, I might have known not only that for much of the intervening period Henshaw has worked as a senior curator at the National Gallery, but that, with John Clanchy, he has been half of ‘J.M. [John Mark?] Calder’, a successful writer of crime fiction. That is to say, there have been at least two other novels: If God Sleeps (1997) and And Hope to Die (2007). (‘At least’ because when one pseudonym has been used, can we be sure that there aren’t others? Is there an ‘Emile Ajar’, a ‘Fosco Sinibaldi’, a ‘Shatan Bogat’? Is Henshaw our Romain Gary?) There is also a slim, bilingual and slightly mysterious work published under Henshaw’s name by a small press in France in 1990, Last Thoughts of a Dead Man (Dernières pensées d’un mort). While he may not have been very public about it, we cannot really say that Henshaw has not been writing.

It is evident, for example, that he has also been working on, or at least thinking about, this ‘new’ book for much of this time. As early as 1989, Henshaw told the Canberra Times of a second novel, set in Japan (‘where I have never been’), a tale told by an old man, looking back, ‘recounting part of his life’. The Snow Kimono, clearly, is that novel, though that early description belies the masterful work is has become.

It is Paris, 1989. Auguste Jovert is a recently-retired inspector of police, the height of whose career, after a horrendous tour of duty in Indo-China, was spent as a ‘gifted’ interrogator for the French during the later stages of the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62). He receives a letter from a young Algerian woman claiming to be his daughter. He carries this letter for two days, but then, in a determination to have done with his past, screws it up, throws it away.

In the interim – since receiving the letter – he has been hit by a car and hurt his knee. Unused to his crutches, he is so slow climbing the stairs that the light times out and he drops his keys in the dark outside his apartment. A new neighbour, a Japanese man, turns on the light, picks up the keys and gives them to him, introducing himself as Professor Omura. He says he has been waiting to see Jovert. Why is not clear. Invited in, he begins to tell Jovert his story, or rather the story of his love for a young girl, Fumiko, whom he has brought up as his daughter, leading her to believe that he is her true father, while her actual father, the novelist Katsuo Ikeda, has been in prison for a crime not explained until we come to the appropriate place in this masterfully constructed narrative. Learning that Katsuo is about to be released and longs to see his daughter, Omura has had to reveal his deception to Fumiko. Fumiko has gone to meet Katsuo and has not returned.

The story is of course far more complicated than this, and Omura seems determined to tell Jovert all, whether Jovert wants to hear it or not. It seems – Ancient Mariner-like – that he has been sent by fate to persuade Jovert to seek out his daughter and to make peace with himself – to accept a bounty by making peace with his past. The healing power of story, if you follow. Late at night, Omura, whose apartment is in fact next door to Jovert’s, can be heard typing. And everywhere he goes he seems to take notes. But let’s not jump ahead. There is one more bit of background to be set into place.

One effect of that heady decade of structuralist and poststructuralist overdrive was to generate a kind of fiction so self-conscious that, for those critics and scholars who wished to exercise the new theory, it offered a seductive and rather counter-productive hermeneutic circle. Another and far more salutary effect was to generate a kind of fiction that absorbed and assimilated the new structural and linguistic awareness – in essence, the fact that in the human world all is structure, all is system; that we are alone in a cage of language, manipulated by appearances, isolated by language from any ‘reality’ beyond. In effect, it re-naturalised this awareness. Instead of the naive naturalism that that period of fiction attempted to wean itself (and its readers) from, we now have a wiser and more ironic form, able to preserve the best of what had gone before, but with a better understanding of its workings. The theoretical scaffolding that, however deftly constructed in a work such as Out of the Line of Fire or the Calvino novel to which it is so indebted, had sometimes been foregrounded to the point where such story as there was seemed to be handicapped by it, has been absorbed. The best writers of the 1990s and first decade-and-a-half of the twenty-first century seem to know how to present those ideas – our new ontology – within the fabric of the tale (text / textile), rather than as accessory to it. (Something like this happened with Magic Realism, too, but that’s another story.)

The Snow Kimono not only exemplifies just such a maturation, it gives us a unique opportunity to conduct, with Out of the Line of Fire, a kind of textbook before-and-after comparison. From a certain perspective, that is to say, and without in any way suggesting that it is the same tale, the new novel shares enough key features with Henshaw’s first book that one can think of it as a kind of reprise. The tale may be told by an elderly Japanese man, but much of it is about a younger version of himself and the compelling hold upon him of a long-term friend. Katsuo is The Snow Kimono’s version of Out of the Line of Fire’s Wolfi; Tadashi Omura occupies the role of the first novel’s nameless narrator. Both novels are about the deceptive nature of documents (truths masquerading as fiction, fictions masquerading as truth); both centralise their erotic dimension. There is even a psycho-forensic component to both – a sense in which each novel revolves around the same deep topos: a wall, a gate, opening upon a garden, offering, when one intrudes, a glimpse of the beautiful woman about whom so much of the narrative and the narrator’s desire turns. In some way, if we could find the key (Omura, as I’ve said, first greets Jovert by handing him his keys). The gate through which Wolfi enters to see, on the balcony, his naked sister, is the gate that Omura enters to see Sachiko in her snow-white kimono, is the gate of the house in Algiers through which, in memory, Jovert enters, to see himself and Madeleine standing on the balcony in Algiers, looking down ‘to the still, blue harbour below’. (The wall, it suddenly occurs to me, could be the text itself, the woman within the ‘true’ story, and for the gate we need a key, which we must wait for the author to supply.)

Instead of the sometimes clunky and slightly abrasive textual disjunctions of Out of the Line of Fire, in other words, we have now a tale almost as seamless, and of such a rich fabric, as one of Sachiko’s mother’s famous kimonos. But we should not let this blind us to the points to which Out of the Line of Fire has alerted us.

I might, for instance, have started my summary differently. ‘Paris, just after dark one gusty evening …’ But that, of course, is the beginning of Poe’s ‘The Purloined Letter’, which is often cited as the first modern detective story. And had I done so – had I begun this way – I could have gone on to mention that, almost as soon as the story opens, the unnamed narrator and his companion, C. Auguste Dupin, are visited by the prefect of police – several ranks above Inspector, I’ll admit – who wishes to consult them about a letter, or, rather, a stolen letter, which he is having trouble finding. Jovert, when he goes back to the bin into which he threw the crumpled note from the woman claiming to be his daughter, cannot find that letter either. And, as it happens, deep within the story that Omura tells him over the coming months, a stolen letter features, both in itself and as a clue.

Is The Snow Kimono in some manner a reprise of ‘The Purloined Letter’? Well, no, it only alludes to it – to remind us, I think, that much can be hidden in plain sight (Poe’s theme). But it is also a hint, at the outset, that there are more texts, and more textual forms, involved here than meet the eye. At the centre of the book – for further instance – is a literary hoax. A young Tokyo academic, Etsuko Kaida, discovers the work of a hitherto unknown nineteenth-century poet, Shiga. This discovery seems set to re-write the poetic history of the period. Katsuo’s would-be university mentor, Professor Todo, writes a scholarly essay on Shiga for a famous literary journal with Katsuo’s help, and in the very issue in which the essay appears there also appears a confession, by Katsuo, that he invented Shiga. (Etsuko Kaida is an anagram of Katsuo Ikeda.) It is hard for me, as the author of a book titled Sons of Clovis: Ern Malley, Adore Floupette, and a Secret History of Australian Poetry (2011), not to see a descendant of Ern Malley here, though the likeliest antecedent is in fact Araki Yasusada, the infamous non-existent ‘Hiroshima poet’, whose newly-discovered work (was he in fact Kent Johnson of Highland Community College in Freeport, Illinois?) hoaxed the American Poetry Review and other journals in 1996, the same year as the famous Sokal hoax.

Hard, too, not to see a ghost of John Scott’s deeply-metafictional (and slightly magic realist) sting-narrative What I Have Written (1993), or of what Scott has called its scriptoral realism: that manner in which – bearing out Barthes’ famous assertion that every text is, in effect, a tissue of quotation – an apparently naturalistic text, one that ‘convinces’ us with its seamless simulacrum of ‘reality’, can be made up of quotations and misappropriations from other texts. (Scott has just produced his own masterpiece of this genre, N, published earlier this year.) Or if not a ghost, then at least to see The Snow Kimono as a fellow (winter’s night) traveller.

Perhaps, after all the celebrations of its absorbing narrative have been themselves absorbed, that may be the way to describe The Snow Kimono – as scriptoral realism, or a version thereof. I might not have made this suggestion on the evidence of the Shiga hoax or the game with ‘The Purloined Letter’ alone, but the references to Ishiguro’s first novel, A Pale View of Hills (1982), have left me in little doubt that such a process is quite consciously at work here.

Much of the story that Professor Omura tells Inspector Jovert about his one-time friend Katsuo – the story he has been able to put together from letters or other forms of evidence – concerns, at first, a set of early relationships and erotic encounters with Etsuko, with Keiko, with Natsumi. It goes on to give accounts of the two key women in Katsou’s life, Mariko and Sachiko, in sections named after them (just as Scott has named the sections of What I Have Written after his central characters). These sections form the compelling crux of the narrative, but the force and function of the former sections – the stories of Etsuko and Keiko – could seem elusive, until one remembers or encounters the Ishiguro novel, in which (I won’t go into the rest of its narrative) a mother, Etsuko, tells her daughter, Keiko, a story about a mother, Sachiko, and her relationship with her daughter, Mariko …

But it is neither my role nor intention to unpack all of Henshaw’s literary borrowings and subversions. And if I seem to be saying that The Snow Kimono is in some way a hoax piece, I have been badly misread. It is one thing to construct a text from other texts – if and to the extent that Henshaw is doing this at all – and (a bit like the perfect sestina) quite another thing ensure that the reader is so deeply absorbed by the narrative that they are taken in – that they do not see this construction – in the first place. The sting – for there is a sting in this tale too – could not work otherwise.

I have some reservations about the eroticism of the subject: the orientation of the gaze; the way the book establishes such a congeries of hauntingly beautiful women – from Etsuko to Natsumi to Keiko to Mariko to Yumiko to Sachiko to Madeleine to Mathilde to Marine – so that one wonders about a kind of feminist occlusion (there are memorable women here, but do they have agency?); and even more about its latent orientalism (one could write, too, about a curious occlusion of history) – but I am happy enough to acknowledge that there may be mitigating factors. It is not unfeasible, for example, that in its stereotypic, Geisha-like presentations the book can be seen as parodic, though I might still want to suggest that it would then be a case of having one’s cake and eating it too.

On the other hand, and by contrast, I have no reservations at all about the seductive power of the narrative, or of the erotics of the text itself:  the way a sentence infuses one with desire for the next; the way paragraphs, scenes and sections provide, with almost perfect timing, crescendo and diminuendo, moments of heat, periods of calm. There are haunting scenes; there are poetic scenes (kimono laid out on the snow, for the colours to set); there are very powerful scenes (one, in a snow-covered field, of a stallion approaching a mare). Overall, there is a consistency of suggestion and detail that would keep all but the most jaded of readers (and even some of those, for I suspect that I am one) quite thoroughly engrossed.

Read the correspondence for ‘The Wall, the Gate, the Balcony’.