I Called Him Necktie

While looking back at an episode in his life, twenty-year-old Taguchi Hiro remembers what his friend Kumamoto Akira said about poetry.

Its perfection arises precisely from its imperfection . . . . I have an image in my head. I see it clearly before me. Its colors are glaring and harsh in their brightness. But as soon as I rush to capture it, it explodes, and what I write down are separate bits that don’t form a whole. Do you see it now? It’s as if I tried to glue together a broken vase, piece by piece. But the shards are so fragmentary that I don’t know which goes with which or how I fit them together, there’s always one fragment left over. But this fragment! It makes the poem. It alone gives meaning . . . . My requiem should be a vase with water shooting through the glue in its cracks.

Soon after this speech, Kumamoto wrote this “requiem”—which he also called “his poem”—and now Hiro is writing his. Also, like his friend, Hiro is fixated on a broken object; in this case, it’s his bedroom wall, which has a hairline fissure that he’s been staring at for the last two years, so he can figure out how to fit himself inside it. Hiro has spent a lot of time staring at this crack, because following a traumatic incident when he was eighteen, he became a hikikomori, a young person who shuts him- or herself in a room and has no interaction with anyone else. Even though his parents still left food at his door, they pretty much gave up on him. However, at the beginning of this wonderful novel from Japanese-Austrian writer Milena Michiko Flašar, Hiro finally re-emerges into the outside world.

After leaving his parents’ house, he makes his way through the hustle and bustle of the city streets and finds sanctuary in a park he remembers from his childhood. Every day for months, he sits on the bench in the park, alone and indifferent to his surroundings. Then, one day, Ohara Tetsu appears. Hiro calls this man, who is sitting on the bench beside his, “Necktie” because of the red-and-gray striped tie he wears with his suit. At first, Hiro quietly observes this man as he eats his lunch, reads his paper, and takes naps. For a couple of weeks, they share the same spot in the park without saying much to each other, although Hiro begins to wonder why he spends so much time in the park instead of an office. Then one day, “he looked at me unexpectedly through the rain. I jumped up. I hadn’t counted on that. Not with this unexpected knowing look. I’m not alone, it said, you are there.”

At this point, Hiro begins to “fall out of his cocoon” and allows himself to befriend this “salaryman” in his mid-fifties. The two start out with a silent understanding, but eventually Hiro, who had unsuccessfully tried to forget how to speak, and Tetsu engage in a conversation. Actually, Tetsu does all the talking. After making small talk about the dangers of smoking and the work his wife Kyōko puts into his bento box lunches, he confesses that he hasn’t yet told her that he was fired for sleeping on the job.

From that moment, Hiro, despite his initial reluctance, becomes Tetsu’s confidant. For months, they meet each other every day in the park; when it rains, they hang out in a jazz club. At first, it seems that these two unlikely friends couldn’t be more opposite. After all, Hiro has never been in the workforce—and doesn’t appear to have any plans to enter it—while Tetsu has dedicated most of his life to the firm that eventually fired him. However, as they start to share painful moments from their pasts, they realize that they have something important in common: both came from families that put pressure on them to be and act a certain way. So while Tetsu did not shut himself in his bedroom in his parents’ house, he shut himself off from the world in other ways. Furthermore, like Hiro, Tetsu is starting to experience freedom once again.

I Called Him Necktie is a story about wanting to belong to a world that has allowed you that freedom. Hiro wants to belong to his family again, while Tetsu wants to continue to be useful to his wife. As their friendship grows, the two learn they cannot just shut themselves in a room or a nightclub or even in an office. They have to exist as flesh-and-blood human beings with souls in an increasingly mechanical world. They have to live. But fortunately, they also have each other to help them through it.

Flašar further strengthens the bond between her characters through her minimal prose style, which comes through wonderfully through Sheila Dickie’s sensitive translation. Flašar doesn’t just discuss poetry in her novel: Hiro’s simple, childlike narration has its own unique rhythm that not only fit his character, but it never gets caught up in all of the noise and flash outside of the park. Instead, as a narrator, Hiro focuses on the delicate nature of human beings. In addition, the minimal use of punctuation shows a language that is unhampered by formality, so it flows like the water through the cracked vase mentioned in Kumamoto’s speech. Because of the touching story and poetic quality of the prose, I Called Him Necktie is a book that readers of literature-in-translation will definitely want in their collection.

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