By Ryu Murakami, translated by Ralph McCarthy
Bloomsbury, paperback 2010.
Audition is a book that is both quick to read and deceptively simple in narrative. It opens with Shige, the 15 year old son of widower Aoyama, urging his father to remarry. Aoyama’s wife Ryoko died of viral cancer seven years previously, aged 35. Father and son were devastated, spending years in quiet, usually unspoken grief, gradually achieving an easygoing, mutually supportive (if relatively silent) relationship. Aoyama, largely thanks to his wife’s parents’ money, owns a video production company, and in the years immediately after his wife’s death has done well financially by making popular videos of religious scenes and, his crowning achievement, after much persistence and persuasion, filming the performance of a reclusive woman famous in Germany for playing the pipe organ.
We are told that Aoyama has had plenty of casual encounters with women since his wife’s death, but nothing serious. He tells his friend Yoshikawa of his desire to meet and marry a suitable woman, and Yoshikawa, who has connections at a radio station, comes up with the idea of holding a fake audition for a role in a film. The woman Ayoama selects from the hundreds who apply is very different from the rest (who sound like cloned entrants to the X factor): the rest of the novel tells, from Ayoama’s perspective, the story of their courtship up to its horrific climax.
The novel is very much a satire of modern society, attitudes and customs. It describes a typical example of young Japanese women’s expensive tastes thus: “I have a friend who raises tropical fish. She took out a loan to buy this huge aquarium, and now she’s working two jobs to pay off the loan. And another girl I know was collecting these beautiful wineglasses from Europe. She did word-processing at home and took on so much extra work that she barely had time to sleep and finally made herself ill.” Throughout the novel, we are shown the contrast between the younger generation, who want everything (whether or not they need it) without making sacrifices or learning the necessary skills, yet (in the person of Shige, Ayoama’s son, and his schoolfriends) are under intense pressure to decide how they are going to survive and work in an uncertain economic environment – and the older generation, where people are depicted as acting in a more considered, thoughtful fashion, prepared to put in years of effort and wait for life’s rewards. (Of course, these stereotypes do not apply solely to Japan, they'd be equally applicable anywhere, bearing in mind that as they are stereotypes there are many individual exceptions to the trend.)
As a thriller, this book does not work that well for me because the reader only sees events from Ayoama’s perspective. Hence the crime aspects are reduced to a few heavy hints leading up to the climactic descriptions of nasty events, without psychological insight, albeit with a strong sense of irony about a society where emotions are rigidly repressed or stylised – as evidenced, for example, by the fakery of the audition and the fakery of the applicants, fakeries that could be hiding anything at all. As a story about a small, close family learning to survive and move on after the death of one of them, the book works much better. Some of the descriptions of the family before the wife’s death, and of the adaptations the father and son have made, are quietly moving. Many of the social observations are acute, but provided with a light touch and quite fascinating. As an aside, the translation is American, not English, English, and makes a good job of the passages where various aspects of Japanese cultural norms are explained, not least the psychology of eating in sushi bars.
Apparently, Audition has been made into an “acclaimed cult movie”, one I shall not be watching because of the extended violent ending. (According to Wikipedia, to which I am not linking for this purpose, the film is far more gory and contains added, violent scenes compared with the book. )
The author, Ryu Murakami, has written several successful crime novels (“Japan’s master of the psycho-thriller” according to the blurb of this one), including In the Miso Soup and Piercing, which although I have not read them, seem from my reading of reviews, etc, to be cruelly observed satires on Japanese society and its values.