There are seven stories I read at least once a year, for pleasure and in the same very rational spirit that infertile males of certain old (and new) world tribes have eaten rhinoceros horns and tiger penises, hoping that imbibing a thing of a certain shape and power will transfer the shape and power upon the imbiber. One of those stories is Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro
." Each time he follows that woman through the streets of Paris, dreaming she is his first love, hoping she will not turn around and break the spell, my blood quickens, for I have done that. Another is a story I found by accident called "The Dandelion Clocks" by Juliana Horatia Ewing
, who was said to have influenced Kipling
and who, like an Edo ink painter, draws character in a stroke. Four of the stories are Kipling's: "The Church That Was at Antioch"; "The Manner of Men"; "The Gate of a Hundred Sorrows," the most beautiful story of terminal drug addiction you will ever read; and a rarely anthologized story about a Lahore prostitute and betrayal of the Empire called "On the City Wall," which is perhaps my favorite of all his stories. The last is Yasunari Kawabata
's "Izu no Odoriko
," "The Izu Dancer," a masterpiece of the kind of minimalist prose Ernest Hemingway
was contemporaneously forging in Paris, each writer unknown to the other.
"The Izu Dancer" is the account of a young Tokyo university student who goes traveling in the far-flung Izu peninsula. There, he comes across a band of itinerant performers going between guesthouses and hot springs. Among them is a young girl, Kaoru, with whom, though he never says as much, he falls in love.
As the troupe travel west, roadside signs begin to appear ("Itinerant performers unwelcome!") that warn of the loose behavior that goes hand in hand with the troupe's nights.
They arrive in a town and Kaoru's uncle tells the young narrator he must not go with them to their evening engagement at a ryokan. He should stay at a different guesthouse altogether. He obeys, but listens all night to the silence in the mountain town and to the dancing girl's drum. When the drum sounds, he feels some peace, but when it stops...
I could not bear the silences when the drum stopped. I sank down into the depths of the sound of the rain. At length I could hear the noise of confused footsteps — were they playing tag or dancing in circles? Then all fell silent. I opened my eyes wide, trying to peer through the darkness. What was this stillness? I was tormented, wondering if the dancing girl's night might be sullied.
The next day he sees Kaoru bathing in a stream and laughs at his guilty concern, for she has the body of a little girl, but later there are dim hints that have us suspect her youth may not have barred her from a "sullied night" after all.
I first read the story as a 20-year-old, and I wondered: Do the unspeakable things happen when that drum stops beating at night, or not? What is the exact nature of the young man's "torment"? (That is, would he, if given the chance, be her protector, only so he might "sully" her night himself?) This all occurs in the silence of the night when the drum stops beating, which is doubly silent as it marks a silence in the narrative: the questions are not even directly asked, let alone answered.
It was the first time I had encountered a particularly East Asian use of generative silence in literary art. Afterward, each time I sat down at my desk, I considered the words I penned as the beating of a drum, and I considered what might be born in the silence after them.
Of course, I read and was deeply influenced by the minimal art of Ernest Hemingway, particularly the silences born of his "Iceberg Theory":
If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.
Yet there was, at least in the criticism of the day, and according to Hemingway — though the writer's assessment of his own work need never be the last word — a definite "thing" that was omitted. So Hemingway could comment post-facto on his story "Out of Season" that the young man making vague fishing plans for the next day committed suicide, even though the suicide is not narrated.
In the Japanese art and writing I began to admire, the use of silence was different. I am thinking of the minimal, enigmatic expressions of haiku; the empty space that envelops sumi-e (inkwash painting); the long gaps between articulations in Noh theatre; and, most recently, the silences that inform a kind of writing known as "ambient fiction," practiced by such writers as Yuki Kurita, whose express purpose, at least in her novel Oteru Moru (Hotel Mole), is putting people to sleep. At last I realized that the most striking thing about the use of silence in Japanese art and writing was that the absences were meant to be considered as just that; they did not require filling.
The resistance of academia and criticism to take up East Asian literature (aside from Murakami) with the same energy it takes up European and even African and sub-Continental writing might be ascribed to the Western literary academic habit of "decoding" texts. Even today, in highly regarded universities, it is possible — it is likely — to take classes that operate under the assumption that literary works are kinds of high-brow puzzles, prepacked with ideological messages grafted on at time of authorship, which sensitive readers, given the correct tools — biographical and historical data, contemporary philosophical overlays — might then go about the task of decoding to find "what the author really meant." In the Orient, traditionally at least, it is seen as more profitable to look at what a work does, rather than what it means. To consider it rather as an experience to be had than a potential transmission of bytes of knowledge. Indeed, throughout ancient and medieval periods of Japan, no writing existed that did not have a ritual purpose. It is even likely that a novel as late as The Tale of Genji was originally read publicly as part of Shinto ritual, in order to banish demons and reconnect the listeners and tellers with an unworldly place of peace.
The Japanese codified the use of silence in art under the aesthetic ideal ma (?). In Chinese, the character literally means "door." The strokes indicate a gateway that braces the Chinese character ri, "sun" or "day": so a great light shines through the gap. The negative space that exists between the walls of a room or in the silence between notes of music are examples of ma.
When I set out to write a testament to the place and people I grew up with, which would become The Mary Smokes Boys (I did not even consider it a novel back then; so much of it really happened), I knew that I must weave the silence of ma into the work somehow. But I faced one practical concern constantly: How to materialize an absence?
Silence, you might say, was bred into my being. The town in which I grew up in southwestern Queensland sits upon a vast and ancient flat plain. The plain is cut by an ephemeral water course called the Bungil Creek, whose headwaters are in a pocket of — very moderate — "high" country, roughly 70 kilometers north of town and which the vast majority of maps do not even see fit to name. My family lived outside town limits, on a few hundred acres. It was a deeply dark and silent place — though I did not know that then, as I was in my late teens before I saw a city.
Likewise, the broader country of the novel, the Western Queensland downs and plainland, begins when the Brisbane city sprawl dissipates and ends before the famous red deserts. It is a passage into the heart of the country that occupies few imaginations. Though the plains alone are larger than Texas, a 1,000-page travel guide for Australia devotes an eighth of one page to them. The aborigines were driven out 100 years ago. The language that grew out of the landscape's defeating distances and unremarkable marks went with them. The distance between that lost language and the amalgam of German and Latin now laid upon the country must be comparable to the distances between landmarks that cause travelers such attrition. One of the tasks I was presented with when writing the book was to show the effect of this silent landscape on the people.
The ambient novel favors drift over narrative event. This, I thought, could be employed for my plainland book. Were there a high mountain near Mary Smokes Town, everything would have been different. A mountain begets a definite narrative: you climb it, or you descend from it. A peak is a goal. Think of any book by Jon Krakauer. Think of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," The Razor's Edge. Old men sit on mountains for a good reason. Time flows up the sides of mountains and is sharpened fine at the top. But time pools on the plains. It lies stagnant. So in The Mary Smokes Boys the characters lose time sitting by windows, looking up at the stars, staring across blowing grass. Event, when it comes to Mary Smokes, comes as a shock, as a flood, rather than as a part of an inevitable flow.
Another kind of generative silence I attempted to harness was in the characters' dialogue.
People in that country do not talk. Not about serious things. Certainly men do not talk. It is, I am sure, one of the factors that account for the aberrantly high rate of suicide. But this, of course, does not mean such men have no interior life, only that it rarely becomes exterior. Hence the necessity to have characters speak about something without directly touching it. The way, for example, the central character, Grey North, speaks about his sister with his best friend, whom he suspects is in love with her.
A related silence is in Grey's relationship with his sister: exactly what she means to him, what his intentions for her are — where his protection becomes jealously and then, perhaps, something uglier, or perhaps more beautiful — are not drawn, nor could I draw them. There are things you simply cannot say. They are, perhaps, a potentiality of language, rather than an actuality. I have been asked by readers what the exact nature of the relationship between Grey and Irene is, and what they should decide regarding the almost supernatural affinities the girl has with her dead mother. But I do not have the answers, and I do not believe definitive, rational answers may be reached. Rather, the answer is a thing I feel, and — if I have not failed in my task — a reader will feel, yet at the moment I attempt to verbalize that answer, I know I have put a lie to it. The search for the final word on the matter is wrongheaded because there is no final word, and the story's effect depends on that. For me, for the silence to make its full impact, it must remain.
The Mary Smokes Boys is in part a response to the murder of a close friend of my sister, many years ago in the town where we grew up. As a story of tragic death, it is concerned with the greatest silence, that which resides on the far bank of the Styx... There are those commentators who have called The Mary Smokes Boys bleak. It is true I do nothing to soften the blow of the violent tragedy when it comes; I present no light at the end of any tunnel; I offer no leavening coda. Could I not, some readers have asked me, added a message of hope? Some passage of escape for the main character, at least?
I confess I do not find the book bleak at all, and I surely hope, and quietly suspect, that I am not alone. The silences I leave the book with are deliberate. What I hope I have described at the conclusion of the novel is an emptiness, demanding to be considered as such… There are no words that fit tragedy. Nothing we can say. We do not want to be told everything is all right. It is not. Only the presence of another human being, another voice, a voice that need not be "saying" anything, comforts us. It is the tones, beyond syntax, the unspeaking presence, that heals, speaking comfort without words.
The prophet Elijah heard God's voice as unexpected silence whilst hiding in a desert cave near what later became the city Haifa. The passage is one of the most beautiful in all literature and can be found in 1 Kings 19. I will repeat it here for the sake of those who do not yet know it:
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a still small voice.
That is more beautiful and more profound than anything I will ever write. It is possible that no writing is "divinely inspired" in the way clergy conceive the term, let alone the work of a menial writer of prose fiction (it is also possible, according to Orthodox Christianity, that there are no words that aren't), but I would hope the darkness and silence at the end of The Mary Smokes Boys contain a note of that comforting "still small voice." Just so, I hope a reader will hear the unwritten words of my book without my writing them.