By Polly Barton
Fifty Sounds, Polly Barton's memoir of moving to Japan, immersing herself in the language, and becoming a literary translator, is out tomorrow from Fitzcarraldo Editions. In the excerpt below, Barton recalls the elation brought on by her growing understanding of Japanese and her clandestine relationship with a coworker.
bare-bare: the sound of being so invested in something that it leaks into everything you do, or abandoning hope of appearing cool, or insidious paranoia
I suppose the time that most adults venture closest to inhabiting a prolonged state of wonderment is when they are head over heels in love. This rapid vault into a state of ecstasy has been portrayed time and time again across every art form imaginable, but the specific depiction my mind reaches for is that in the novels of Iris Murdoch: the way love falls bolt-like upon her characters, and from one second to the next, the world as they experience it is transformed. In this new, heightened state, everything is wondrous and everything connected, feelings explode out of us like fireworks, and if we notice that everything we do or say is a cliché, it doesn’t really matter to us because it strikes us that, fundamentally, this is a mode of life that is not only more pleasurable but also in some sense truer, righter, better. As Nabokov puts it:
This capacity to wonder at trifles—no matter the imminent peril—these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest forms of consciousness, and it is in this childishly speculative state of mind, so different from common sense and its logic, that we know the world to be good.
This is an accurate description of the headspace at which I arrived after half a year in Japan, and, outside of experiments with psychedelics, it was as close as I’d come to feeling rapture toward the entire world, but I genuinely didn’t know whether it should or could be categorized as the side effect of being in love with a person.
What was happening, after all, was not just a case of suddenly seeing the familiar with fresh eyes; rather, everything in the world around me was, objectively speaking, substantially different from what I was used to, which only intensified the sense that my rapture was entirely reasonable—that everything around me was a feat of sheer imagination and the deep, wild, vertiginous sort of love I felt for every part of it was in fact a justified response. If other people didn’t feel that love, it was because they were immunized in some way, but luckily, wondrously, I was not, which was why I could feel it in spades: for the kids, for their haircuts and their faces and the neon blue polyester of their sports kits, for the rituals and the architecture of the school, for the rice fields and the beach, and the outrageous synth covers of Eurythmics and Blondie and Stevie Wonder they played in the supermarket. And in a thousand different ways, for the language. For I was now learning to read kanji, and the world was opening up to me. One day, driving a section of road I’d driven and walked at least two hundred times, I watched as a cloth banner fluttering in the wind came to life, saw its meaning rear up and leap out of what I had previously computed as some form of geometrical design. Car, it says car! my head screamed inside. How, outside a car dealership, could it have said anything else? But that was common sense speaking, and common sense mattered little in the headspace I inhabited. What mattered was that kanji had been there all along, and today I’d read it, and that was a straight-up marvel. I had come into possession of a key to unlock the world around me. Not only was I in love with the sensation as the doors opened, but just sitting still with the key in my hand gave me an intense sense of connectedness with the world.
“This hybrid of English and Japanese seemed to me like an invention of dazzling brilliance.”
Looking back at myself then, I can’t help feeling that I had come down with a type of connection fever, and maybe what I was in love with above anything was the glimmers of togetherness glimpsed across the lakes of difference. In this vein, I remember teaching a class on prepositions where I handed out photocopies of the outline of a room and asked the children to draw in the detailed layout as I described it: There is a table by the window. There is a vase on the table. There are three dogs under the chair. Some took to the task immediately, others needed a bit more coaxing, and a good few performed their reluctance by sinking into comatose immobility, their arms flopped out wide across the desk and their eyes pinned to the floor. And so I roamed between the desks, placed to stand separately from one another, repeating each sentence what felt like far too many times, occasionally tapping their pieces of paper and saying the most relevant command I could muster in Japanese—draw, draw, please draw. After a while I passed by the desk of one of the baseball clubbers, a quiet boy I didn’t have much of a relationship with, and who was one of the slumpers. Leaning over to look at his page, I saw that under his chair had appeared three baby circles, with the character for dog, 犬, penciled inside each one.
I knew that character. I had seen pictures of it in my kanji book, showing how in ancient Chinese it had moved through various stages of simplification from a detailed representation of a dog to the form it took now, and I also remembered the way that Slime Forest counseled learners to memorize it by picturing the dash as a woof coming out of the big dog’s mouth (without the dash, the character meant "big"). I knew one of its readings, "inu," but as with most kanji for me then, I couldn’t make an immediate connection to its sound: it was still more like a picture or a symbol, and this only heightened the impression that the baseball boy writing it was a creative genius, engaging in a practice that sat on the cusp of art and language. That he had produced, with his row of dogs, a work of impromptu concrete poetry. I pointed at them and laughed delightedly, as if he’d shared with me a private joke, and he looked utterly flummoxed. It’s evident now that not only was the boy’s response little more imaginative than drawing a circle and writing dog inside, but there was also no way he was intending it as a way of communicating with me. If anything, it was a retreat from communication, a sulky avoidance of anything English or artistic—but I was so crazy in connection that I couldn’t see it like that. Like the very uncoolest of people, I was certain that I was included in everything, and everything was great.
I saved some of my most ecstatic feelings for Y, and the strange argot that we spoke. This hybrid of English and Japanese seemed to me like an invention of dazzling brilliance, from which originality came off like a volatile gas; I think much of this impression ensued from the way that mostly our grammatical framework was borrowed from Japanese, enabling constructions I would not have thought possible a few months ago. Even regular English expressions now took on Japanese sentence-final particles, and within not too long I found myself voicing constructions like "I think so da yo"—"da yo" being a sentence ending that indicated the conveying of information not known to the speaker—because that seemed to me more expressive and emotive than a regular "I think so," even if I knew that that impression was limited to this space, this context. Which was the other crucial thing about mine and Y’s language: it felt intensely personal. It was like a house we had built ourselves, each brick laid with a backward glance that says, See? I did this for you. I did this for us. Obviously, as time went on and I encountered other mixed Japanese/English-speaking couples, was part of them myself, I would come to see that really there wasn’t anything that desperately unusual about the mishmash that Y and I spoke, particularly for two people with limited abilities in the other’s native language, yet that didn’t diminish the feeling in my memory, of turning to each other and trying with everything we had to touch our languages together, in a way that was special precisely because there was no rule book.
Another grand prix for inventiveness I awarded to our attempts at clandestine conversation and arranging our secret rendezvous while keeping up a public pretense of being just moderately good friends. The creative enterprise, which was comprised of feigning distance and impartiality in public, and all the other ways we had of keeping our connection secret, was thrilling and intoxicating, and it gave us a shared project to work on, and maybe more crucially, to speak about. Over time, we developed set conversational patterns around this enterprise, a special subset of vocabulary. Early on, I remember Y told me that he was talking to his relatives about something that had happened while we were together. ‘Wait, did you tell them about me?’ I asked, half shocked and half flattered.
"Of course not," he said, with great composure. "You’re classified."
Later on, when we were closer and he used this expression for the third or fourth time, I asked him where he’d learned it and made the discovery it was lifted from Top Gun, which I found something of a letdown. But even that couldn’t kill the aura of momentousness that lingered from the first time, when I found it endearing and sexy and somehow shocking. I suppose behind all that was the effect I assumed was the intended one: it made me feel special, and hidden in the right way, the way that precious things were hidden.
“Looking back now, I find it odd that I could have joked around about all of this.”
Other words that came up over and over again in our conversations were the Japanese verb bareru, meaning "for news to get out" or "for someone to be found out," and its mimetic version, bare-bare, used when a lie is blatant, when something is blindingly obvious, a secret is badly kept, and so on. Y was an expressive speaker at the best of times, but when he spoke this word he was almost a caricature. He was also very much a man, snarling, his Rs rolled. He would not fuck up, he would not lose control, would not be bare-bare: this was what his tone seemed to say. I, on the other hand, was laughably so. I didn’t resent or dispute this characterization; I knew it to be true. This was part of the whole setup; I was an exploding thing. In fact, it was often me who offered up the evidence of my hopelessness, to be deemed by him laughably bare-bare. Like how the children had to ask me a question as part of their termly oral examinations, and some of them would ask about him: Who do you love, we or Y? Do you love Y? Which do you take, love or money? And each time I answered, I told Y, I blushed furiously. We talked about this over and over, laughed and laughed and laughed.
Looking back now, I find it odd that I could have joked around about all of this, because I was not half as unconcerned by the ethical dimension of our relationship as these conversations made me appear—was, in fact, plagued by a sense of guilt and paranoia about what we were doing. What I really wanted was to ask, in full seriousness, "Please will you tell me if what we’re doing is really terrible?" Being unable to do that, though, I settled instead for these comical conversations that danced around the source of the concern. I felt, in a way I couldn’t remember ever feeling since being a young child, as if my ethical radar was wholly out of range, and when I tried to make judgements about how bad what I was doing was, it felt like I was reaching into darkness. I found myself reliant on Y to tell me the truth, both about his family situation and the wider context of how marriage and infidelity and divorce were perceived in Japan. He had informed me that his marriage had been defunct for a long time, and his wife was pleased they were now living separately, but he feared the repercussions if he got a divorce because teachers were supposed to be role models, and thus to have unbreachable marriages. I didn’t doubt that this narrative was one-sided, but I didn’t distrust it in essence, and the more I thought on the situation thus defined, the more I came to feel like we were actually not doing any harm so long as we didn’t get found out—that in some sense, it was only the exposure of our affair and the disruption that exposure would cause that would make our relationship morally suspect. So long as we were careful, we were doing no wrong; it seemed to me that possibly, that was a more Japanese way of thinking about things, and it certainly seemed to approximate Y’s take on the matter, as far as I could get a handle on it. I could only assume it was that take that permitted him the calm around it that I wasn’t able to have.
There was just one time I saw him freak out. The two of us were in the staffroom, having a conversation that wasn’t so different from the kind that we’d have in his flat, except we were surrounded by teachers who appeared to be engrossed in their work but were almost certainly listening in. Our English protected us, or so we thought, but then out of the blue he switched. I’d outraged him in some way, and although he wasn’t properly angry, he needed to let off the feeling, so he addressed me using a pronoun for "you" that is familiar, even derogatory. There was nothing radically bare-bare about this, in and of itself—I’d heard him use it with the kids in his sports team whom he knew well—but as language to adopt to a foreign teacher who one theoretically has little contact with, it was markedly inappropriate. I saw it flash across his face then: not only the realization that he had gone and done it, but also, I think, a sense of danger—the understanding that it was within his power to let himself down. That what we had somehow made self-control more difficult. "That was bare-bare," I said to him later, a note of glee creeping into my voice, and he nodded, somberly. "Yeah, that was not good." But there was still part of me—and this was both the blessing and the problem—that felt that it was good. In some crucial way, the world really was good.
Excerpted from Fifty Sounds by Polly Barton. Copyright © 2021 by Polly Barton. Reprinted by permission of Fitzcarraldo Editions. All rights reserved.
Published Apr 14, 2021 Copyright 2021 Polly Barton