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August 4, 2011

Location Japan: "One Hot Summer in Kyoto" by John Haylock

Summer in Japan is hot and sticky – after two years of cool (and wet) Dutch summers, I have to face that reality again – and I am not even living in Kyoto at the moment. But nowadays all big city summers in Japan are terrible because of the heat-sink phenomenon, Kyoto is nothing exceptional anymore. So what could be more fitting in all the stickiness than reading a book about Kyoto summers I bought several years ago but which has been sitting unopened on my shelves? I am talking about the novel One Hot Summer in Kyoto by John Haylock, which I rediscovered earlier this month during the ongoing process of unpacking and ordering my removal luggage. It was a great find, an ironic comedy written in polished, economical English.

The story tells about the middle-aged and egocentric (if not arrogant) Peter Meadowes, teacher of English in Tokyo, who borrows the house of an acquaintance to spend the long summer holidays in the ancient capital of Kyoto. Peter is married, but lives apart from his commanding English wife Monika who hates Japan and prefers to stay back home with their children. Peter has a girlfriend in Tokyo, Noriko, who is rather possessive while his own feelings have cooled, so he sees this holiday as a good chance to get away from her as well.

In the Kyoto house he has rented, to his pleasant surprise he encounters an unexpected new woman: the young and seductive Kazumi, who lives there on and off as a sort of unofficial caretaker. He immediately makes advances, but is rebuffed – like water, Kazumi always manages to slip through his hands, although she sometimes also perversely seems to goad him on. She even resorts to flirting with Peter's friend, Bob, another expat professor living in Kyoto – or perhaps she is just pretending to make Peter mad.

Obsessed with Kazumi, Peter's whole Kyoto summer is spent running after her. He doesn't do much else – he is too tired to read (he has brought the collected works of Marquis de Sade) or work on his study about a Chinese Tang poet – he even is too lazy to enjoy the temples and festivals of Kyoto, although we get a good picture of the rhythm of daily life in the ancient capital via the neighborhood sights and sounds that enter the wood-and-paper house. And the descriptions of the steamy hot, wet, sweaty summer are so realistic you don't need a stove when you read this book in winter.

Then the devoted Noriko arrives, Peter cannot escape his love trap, although he even has the boorishness to go on flirting with Kazumi behind her back. But interestingly Noriko also teams up with Kazumi and together they seem to be making fun about Peter in Japanese – a language he still cannot understand despite his long sojourn in the country. After Noriko has returned to Tokyo Peter by chance meets a former student, Miss Goto, a very prim and conservative lady, who is interested in the theater. To make Kazumi jealous, Peter starts going out with Miss Goto and also tries to seduce her.

Then Noriko once again comes to Kyoto, to demonstrate her enduring feelings, and to make things worse, also wife Monika arrives on the scene, on the last leg of a summer tour around the world (she is obviously very wealthy). Monika has a strong personality, is cool and reasoning, totally uninterested in Japanese culture and stands emotionally far above Peter's romantic entanglements.

Things come to a head in a final juggling act and Peter has to make a fundamental choice... The sober end of this "summer farce" will come as no surprise. The pleasure of this novel is in the journey, not the destination.

A Typical Foreigner?
The publisher has written on the book flap: “When making his choice, Peter Meadowes confronts the love-hate relationship that afflicts the typical gaijin - foreigner - in Japan. Remaining in Japan may be impossible, but escaping only creates the desire to return.” One Hot Summer in Kyoto is a delightful comedy, "gloriously ironic" as Richie has called it according to the book cover, but to see Peter Meadowes' predicament as that of "the typical gaijin" goes a bit too far.

Although we should not forget that Haylock has poured his irony into his "hero" as well, Peter Meadowes does not at all look like the "typical gaijin" of today - he is very much of the bygone age of the sixties-to-eigthies (the book was first published in 1980): too stubborn (or lazy) to learn the language, vegetating on a diet of only English newspapers, eating lunches and dinners in foreign hotels, meeting friends in the bars of those hotels, and only "going native" in so far as seeking the "Asian mystique" of Japanese women. Peter physically lives in Japan, but has remained a complete foreigner, sitting on his own island. I am not promoting that people completely give up their own culture, but when you live in a new culture like Japan, you should at least step half-way over the cultural bridge.

What shows in a most telling manner how intensily foreign Peter has remained, is food. Peter has cooking as a hobby, always Western dishes as pastas and goulash, although the results – to judge from the reactions of Kazumi and Noriko, are not that great. We never see him eating Japanese food – also when he visits a restaurant, it is always Western. He likes to drink, but only whiskey, never sake or shochu.

If you cannot eat the delicious food of Japan, you do not belong here, is what he unconsciously seems to tell us.
John Haylock (1918-2006) was a Cambridge University graduate who traveled around the world teaching and writing. He spent fourteen years in Japan, but also lived in the Middle East and Thailand. He wrote about twenty books, of which five are situated in Japan.