An Exquisite Sense of What Is Beautiful

BOOK: An Exquisite Sense of What Is Beautiful
3.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

An Exquisite Sense of What Is Beautiful
is in the tradition of Graham Greene or William Boyd, taking in great sweeps of history without ever losing sight of the personal, the telling detail. Like his hero Edward, Simons has glimpsed, in the cracks between the ancient and über-modern, the East/West schizophrenia, the soul of the place. An accomplished and compelling novel by a storyteller at the top of his game,
An Exquisite Sense of What Is Beautiful
lives up to its ambitious title, delivering a story that is both delicate in its detail and politically robust.’ C

An Exquisite Sense of What Is Beautiful
is actually several love stories, seamlessly flitting between times, countries and historical events. The prose is exquisite and beautiful. A great read. A piece of art.’ H

‘J David Simons’ latest novel set in Scotland, London and Japan is that rare thing, a genuine tour-de-force, a beautifully written love story that combines political impetus, questions about art and truth, and an exotic setting once almost blown to extinction in an act of war. It is the kind of sophisticated, grown-up writing that properly intrigues, and calls to mind the best of William Boyd and Sebastian Faulks.’ L

‘A beautifully sensitive book portraying the inevitably damning inequalities that can arise within all human relationships, be they political, cultural, sexual or emotional. Insightful and thought-provoking.’ S



For Sofia

The author would like to thank the Society of Authors’ Foundation for their generous support in the writing of this novel.

“I saw the waterwheel as a symbol of the divine mechanism of
as it swept round in its timeless arc, scooping out the lifeblood of the carp-filled pond, carrying its burden to the top and then releasing it gently back to the source in an illusion of quickened pace. The victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Could their souls be returned to their source, or were their essences so obliterated, so totally annihilated at some subatomic level that their very life force disappeared forever from the universal scheme of things? Never to dwell in a godly kingdom or to be reincarnated back here on earth.

And what of their assassins? I sat with them that night in a Tokyo theatre during the early days of the Occupation as they watched and laughed and sang along with the first public performance of
The Mikado
in Japan. On stage, more Americans, as well as British and Canadians – the ABC as the Japanese used to call them – acted out the leads while the locals were relegated to the singing and
chorus. There was not blood on the hands of the audience that night but the burnt skin and bomb-blasted souls of the tens of thousands sacrificed in their honour. What of them, these Lord High Executioners?”

, P

“And I remembered that famous photograph of the first meeting between MacArthur and the Emperor taken not long after the surrender. The General in simple military attire – no medals,
or starry epaulettes – standing comfortable and relaxed like some John Wayne character, towering over the Emperor beside him. Hirohito, stiff at attention, dressed in morning coat and
trousers, looking like the Supreme Commander’s oriental butler to the ignorant observer. Who would attend the funeral of this Emperor when he passed away? The soldiers stranded in Manchuria? The prisoners-of-war in Siberian labour camps? The fire-bombed homeless of Tokyo? The survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? The widows and children of the
? And I
what they would feel as they filed past the imperial coffin, for this man, once so divine and now so human, who had brought the shame of defeat upon their nation, who had caused them to
themselves on the collective sword of surrender. Would they see past the trappings of empire, beyond the Imperial guards, past the wreath bouquets, the thick smell of incense, the chants of the Shinto priests, the coffin walls? Would they ponder on the cold, shrouded, shrivelled corpse within and see that this was just a man? Just a man.”

, P


Hakone, Japan


‘Your favourite season is the one you are born into,’ Edward’s mother, a bitter child of winter, used to tell him. Edward, an
baby, recalled this statement as the autumn forest flashed by the window of the taxi in its sweep up the hillside. This yellow-brown parade of lacquer trees, poplars and elms marking his journey back in time, trunk by rapid trunk. He used to love this time of year. Now the autumn of his birth day just reminded him of his
death. The withering, the desiccation, the falling, the decay.

‘How long now?’ Enid asked.

He leaned forward, tapped the half-opened partition with his cane. ‘
Nan-pun kakarimasu ka

Go-fun gurai
,’ the driver grunted, holding up a spread of his white-gloved digits.

‘About five minutes,’ he told her as he settled back into the leather. His mind still felt fuzzy at the edges, jet-lagged, labouring for clarity in a haze of warped time, half here and half somewhere else. Yet he couldn’t really complain. The flight from London had taken only fourteen hours. A modern miracle compared to his first journey on the inaugural Polar Route. Almost two days flying back
then. All the passengers rushing to one side to catch a glimpse of the North Pole, the pilot ordering them back for fear of a tilt.

‘It must feel strange,’ she said. ‘Coming back.’

‘I don’t know. It’s a different country now.’ He looked at her. Her ringless fingers fiddling with the clasp on her handbag, her head fixed forward, lips tight, her complexion paler than usual. ‘Thank you for coming,’ he said, his voice still scratching dry from the many airborne hours aloft.

‘It’s my job.’

‘Still, I know you don’t like travelling.’ He almost patted her hand as he said this, to stop her fidgeting if nothing else. Then as the vehicle began to slow, he felt ripples of panic spread across his abdomen, down his thighs. He gripped the top of his cane.

‘The hotel manager’s name is Takahashi,’ she said. ‘He has been very helpful with the arrangements. Please try to
his name. You forget how heartening it is for people to be remembered. Especially by you.’

The taxi swung off the road, eased up the driveway, stopped in the forecourt. His door was immediately hauled open and cool air swooped into the compartment along with a gloved hand. He shooed away the assistance of the liveried doorman, struggled out of the car. Then steadying himself on his cane, he straightened his back, aware of each aching joint grinding into position until he was fully able to take in the view. A feeling of both joy and gratitude swept through him. The hotel was just as he remembered it. A magical, medieval Japanese castle. Those tiers of grey-tiled roofs cascading out of the hillside. The rust-red balconies. The lanterns.

‘Sir Edward, Sir Edward.’ An elegant gentleman in dark jacket and pinstriped trousers approached, bowed deep before him. ‘How nice it is to welcome you back after such a long absence.’ The hotel manager snapped upright, held out his hand.

‘Ah, Takahashi-san,’ Edward said. ‘It is good to be back.’ He grasped the offered hand. ‘And this is my personal assistant. Ms Enid Blythe.’

Takahashi stepped back, clicked his heels together, bowed again.

‘What a beautiful building,’ Enid said.

Takahashi beamed. ‘Come, let me escort you inside. My staff will take care of the taxi. And your cases.’ The manager
a doorman into attending to the task.

Edward sighed as he moved towards the revolving doors,
for the cane earthing the pulses of excitement racing through his tired veins.

‘No need to register,’ Takahashi informed them at the top of the stairs, flapping a hand of dismissal at the clerk behind the reception desk. ‘You will see that not much has changed, Sir Edward. We have tried not to disturb the original style wherever possible.’

Edward looked around. The spacious salon with its parquet flooring, teak panelling and dull-leather armchairs retained its
aura of a gentleman’s club. Even the adjoining Magic Room appeared intact, bringing back memories of evenings spent in the company of visiting conjurers and Chinese illusionists.

‘My room?’ he asked.

‘As requested, I have provided you with the Fuji Suite. It too remains almost the same. Ms Blythe has the identical
on the floor above.’

‘And office space?’ Enid asked.

‘You will have your own desk and telephone in our business centre. High speed Internet access, of course. Photocopying on request.’

‘Excellent, Mr Takahashi,’ Enid said, the colour flowing back into her cheeks at the mention of her favourite accessories. ‘Can I just remind you this is very much a private visit.’

‘Discretion is one of the hallmarks of this hotel, Ms Blythe,’ Takahashi sniffed.

‘Even so, it is important that Sir Edward’s stay is not made public.’

‘I have already briefed my staff. Now, may I show you to your rooms? First, Sir Edward.’

While Enid waited at reception, Edward followed Takahashi down a corridor so much longer and formidable than he had often recalled to reach the open door to his room. His luggage had already been stacked inside.

‘Will you be having lunch?’

‘I think I will have a nap first. Could you ask reception to call me in a couple of hours?’

‘Of course. And if I may be so bold as to suggest, Sir Edward. I thought perhaps we could meet to talk about the old days?’

‘Yes, yes, of course. The old days. But not now. Now I must rest.’

‘Later then.’ Takahashi bowed and left.

With the door shut behind him, Edward laid back against its wooden panelling. His chest ached. He closed his eyes. In a
instant he saw her. Sumiko. Excitedly indicating the views of the valley from the window. Blinking his eyes open, he almost expected her to be there, the gold thread of her kimono
in the sunshine. He pushed himself off the back of the door and wandered around the room, feeling hunched and frail, like a general stumbling around the battlefields of a pyrrhic victory,
at corpses, mourning his losses, measuring the price of ambition. He touched the cool fabric of the quilt, ran his hand over the mahogany writing desk. Could this have been the very same desk on which he had sat to write
The Waterwheel
all those years ago? The large walk-in cupboard. Sumiko had loved the way the light went on and off automatically with the opening and closing of the door. ‘Like magic,’ she used to say, replaying her role as conjurer’s assistant frozen in presentation pose.

He felt an enormous weariness pressing down on him,
his whole body in a fatigue that was almost comforting in its announcement of inevitable sleep. He managed to ease off his shoes and, still in his coat, lay down on the welcome softness of the large bed. As he drifted into a sleep that approached stealthily like the
past and diminishing future of his conscious existence, he could just make out the sound of temple bells chiming in the distance.

He decided to skip lunch. It appeared Enid was still napping and anyway he had no appetite for a meal that should have been
in his own time zone. Instead, he opted for a stroll in the
. As he waited in the lobby for the bellboy to return with his
overcoat, he noticed a large glass display cabinet he could not recall from his first visit. He wandered over, took out his reading glasses and surveyed the black and white photographs, captured testaments to the heyday of the hotel. Eisenhower was there, as was Nehru, Einstein, Helen Keller, and Chaplin with tennis racket. There was even a menu autographed by the actor, William Holden. He was surprised to see a photograph of his own younger self standing
in striped blazer and white trousers amid a rigid ensemble of staff in the hotel forecourt. The then-manager, name forgotten but remembered for his large spectacles, stood by his side. He searched the back row of chambermaids, bellboys and porters, and there was Sumiko in the far corner, head partially lowered. On the bottom of the case below this photograph lay a copy of his book, open at the title page. A small white card declared: ‘
The Waterwheel
’ by Edward Strathairn. Written at this hotel. July 1957 – March 1958 [Copies available in the hotel library].

He felt quite overwhelmed by the gesture. After all this was a region of Japan quite used to its literary heroes, with its very own Yasunari Kawabata winning the Literature Nobel back in the Sixties. He recalled how much Sumiko had adored the laureate’s novel
Snow Country
and quietly mouthed the first two sentences, words that had stayed with him for so long while so much else had faded away.

“The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. The earth lay white under the night sky.”

He loved that image. From darkness to light. From the torrid urban squalor of Tokyo into the purity of the snow country. Such an image of renewal. Of hope. Kawabata’s Nobel citation had read: “for his narrative mastery which, with great sensibility, expressed the essence of the Japanese mind.” Kawabata had committed
at the age of seventy-two by placing a gas hose in his mouth. Such an ugly death of self-loathing for such a sensitive man. ‘What was the point, Kawabata-sensei?’ Edward thought. ‘What drove you to such an act when death was already so near?’

The bellboy returned, helped him on with his overcoat, held open the door to the gardens. Edward hobbled out into the
. The pure air refreshed and uplifted but also hinted at the
gloom of the coming winter. He trod carefully along a pathway strewn with maple leaves, using his cane to brush aside the silky awnings of giant cobwebs spun between the overhanging trees. He passed the greenhouses with their outside trays of bonsai trees, then paused by a rock until his breath came more easily. A young
couple passed, full of bows and whispers. Swivelling on his cane, he pressed on until he reached the pond.

His old haunt appeared unchanged. Lush sprays of ferns and grasses danced among mossy boulders embedded along the banks. Just below the green-slime surface of the pool, he could see the orange-speckled carp gliding through the water.

‘Carp can live for two hundred years,’ Aldous had told him at a time when even three score years and ten seemed a distant horizon to both of them. ‘Oh, to be like them,’ he had replied. ‘So aged and content.’

He eased himself down on to a low stone wall. There on the opposite bank, attached to a small wooden hut, stood the
. It greeted him like an old acquaintance, spinning round smoothly, dipping effortlessly into the pond almost as if it were bowing to him in recognition. The newness of the wood declared the wheel was now a reincarnation, the essence of its form
while its structure had been renewed. He looked back down at the red-leafed pathway from where Sumiko had come daily,
him trays of green tea and biscuits to his workplace. And he remembered something else Aldous had told him, a sentence that had stuck in his mind over the years through the sheer power of its wisdom. ‘Great art is the pure expression of our imperfection on the path to truth.’ Yes, Aldous. That was it. But so much
. And so little truth.

He leaned forward, dangled a hand over the surface of the water. Immediately, a slew of carp rushed towards his flailing
, poking out their heads for the invisible morsels, their pink mouths snapping open and shut like silk purses. A cloud concealed the weakening sun and a cold greyness settled over the gardens. He shivered, regretting his hat and gloves left on the dressing table. But he remained watching the waterwheel, focusing his attention on
just one compartment as it scooped out the water from the pond, carried its burden to the top, then released it gently back to the source in an illusion of quickened pace. The sky grew darker. A dried-up maple leaf floated down to rest on the dark wool of his sleeve. Winter was approaching.

BOOK: An Exquisite Sense of What Is Beautiful
3.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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