Tonoharu, by Lars Martinson

Four stars, read in March 2017, then again in August.

I didn’t write what I thought about each book as I finished it, so I can only think of the trilogy as a whole—but you really have to read all three, so it’s just as well. The story is written a bit confusingly; the two protagonists are both named Dan, there are four appendices that each wrap up a storyline, and all the real-time story exists only in the prologue and epilogue, with the second Dan trying to decide whether to renew his contract to teach English in Japan. The majority of the books consists of what is essentially an extended flashback to his predecessor (the first Dan)’s experience. I find that structure very unique, an interesting way of comparing the one Dan’s progression with the other’s complete stagnation. Tonoharu is an often uncomfortable exploration of different kinds of loneliness and isolation.

I was very frustrated with the first Dan—holing up in his apartment from day one, never even attempting to use the rice cooker, putting zero effort into his teaching. On the first day of school he is surprised to find out that he was supposed to prepare a lesson plan, but he never seems to do much after that, either. And the way he chases his fellow English teacher is so painful to watch, so desperate and obnoxiously obtuse. Constance clearly telegraphs her disinterest at every one of their meetings, but—I’m going to be charitable and say it’s partly because she’s one of only two Americans he has contact with—he just cannot stop awkwardly harassing her. Then he dumps Keiko, the Japanese woman he’s been using for sex but with whom he actually began to form a relationship, so he can “come clean” with Constance about his thoroughly unrequited feelings for her. Oh my god.

As an introvert with social anxiety myself, as someone who struggles constantly against isolation even in my native country, I can truly understand; but it seemed to me that he made his situation much, much worse than it had to be with his complete passivity. I resented him for that, which is probably unfair of me, but it’s because of how well I relate to him—because I know how desperately I would be struggling in that situation, and that’s it, he doesn’t seem to struggle at all—he’s just there, being awkward and utterly wasting what should be an incredible life experience. I had the impression that he never saw the Japanese people around him as people he should maybe try relating to as a fellow human—he doesn’t try to learn even the most basic phrases for communicating, he never considers actually just having that relationship with Keiko, and it’s not just because he’s shy; it’s like the idea never occurs to him.

Toward the end of his year in Japan, the first Dan does begin to participate a little bit. He joins the kendo club, persuaded by Mr. Sato, the world’s single nicest person and a truly genuine, caring teacher. But by then it’s too late, the deadline has come for him to decide whether he wants to stay or leave, and since he hasn’t given it any thought, despite having been reminded three weeks prior, he just decides on the spot (“decides” is too strong a word) that he guesses he’ll go home.

In the first book, it seems like Dan’s successor is the same way—but in the second and third books, even before the first Dan leaves, I began to feel that Martinson was critical of their behavior, not just sympathizing with it. The second Dan experiences something that changes things for him, making him realize how much he could be doing to make the situation better, and this puts him in stark contrast to the first Dan who makes as little effort as is humanly possible.

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I loved the artwork, also done by Martinson; it’s beautiful and appropriate throughout the trilogy, with a wonderful level of detail that really brings each scene to life. The style was based off etchings from nineteenth-century books, which I hadn’t noticed at first, but that totally explains the beautiful look (he talks about his process in this video, and it is seriously impressive). The muted colors and tidy, organized panels perfectly match the sustained awkwardness of nearly every situation.

I wonder if the strangeness of the book’s structure is built in on purpose, to simulate the disorientation that both Dans feel alone in a foreign place—carrying on for a long time in pretty much the same way, until suddenly they get an info dump (like when Dan finds out what’s been happening with John Darley and the Romanians) or there’s an important event (the start of the new school year) or something dramatic changes their perspective (the funeral, the second Dan running into the first Dan again, etc.).

It really is remarkable how well Martinson has depicted these experiences of deep isolation. Many of us have gone through them, but expressing them visually, with such subtlety and clarity at the same time—that’s a real skill. I bought these books online because I couldn’t find them anywhere else, and I am glad I did. I’ve already read them twice in five months, and I know I’ll read them again in the future.

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. Jan Hicks says:

    I’m really happy that you enjoyed them, and I found your observations about the first Dan very interesting. You’ve seen things that I hadn’t picked up on, especially around Dan’s relationships with Constance and Keiko. I love these books so much, I know that I will read them again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gwen says:

      I forgot you’d commented on this! I did love them, and in writing this post I found that it’s very difficult to say why. Everything I wrote sounds negative, but the experience of reading the books certainly isn’t. Finding the right word to describe it is hard – for me it’s something like “affinity” – it’s about the connection I feel to it, rather than the plot or characters themselves.

      Like

      1. Gwen says:

        (Not that those aren’t excellent as well.)

        Like

      2. Jan Hicks says:

        Yes! Affinity is a good word to describe it!

        Liked by 1 person

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