In Seicho Matsumoto’s A Quiet Place, middle-aged Tsuneo Asai is a senior civil servant, dedicated to his job, a man who loves his second wife, the much younger but sickly Eiko. We don’t know what happened to Asai’s first wife who died early in the marriage, and it would seem that Asai is fated to be a widower when, on a business trip, he receives the news that Eiko has died suddenly of a heart attack.
Asai knew that Eiko, his wife for seven years, had heart problems; she’d had a heart attack two years earlier, and that’s the reason Eiko gave her husband for no longer having sex. She was afraid that sex would bring on an early death, and so Eiko filled her days with a series of hobbies: studying traditional Japanese ballads, playing the shamisen, Japanese style painting–all abandoned until she found Haiku–an “infatuation” which “stuck.” She joined a haiku group, and Asai, happy that Eiko found something to occupy her time, remained largely disinterested about how his wife spent her days.
After the funeral, Asai asks a few questions about Eiko’s death. She collapsed and died in a “cosmetics boutique” in a neighbourhood peppered with “couple’s hotels.” Some things about the story of Eiko’s death don’t add up. Asai begins to wonder what his wife was doing in this area, and the questions, which remain unanswered, fester in his head.
There are details of Japanese customs here–the matchmaker’s job in bringing Asai and Eiko together, condolence money after the death of a loved one. And since this is Japanese fiction, this is a tale that takes its time, unwinding in unexpected ways as we learn about Asai’s life–now ruined by the unanswered questions about Eiko.
While A Quiet Place is a crime novel, it’s also deeply psychological. The phrase ‘a quiet place’ refers to a section of the book, but it’s also symbolic of Asai’s state of mind. He is an ambitious man–not in the traditional sense of wheeling and dealing his way to the top, but he’s a coat-hanger operative. He prides himself on being a good judge of character and is “adept at sniffing out whether someone was likely to rise in the ranks or not.” Occasionally, just occasionally, he’s “deliberately malicious.” Asai makes sure that he makes himself indispensable, even arranging for geishas for those he thinks will rise in the hopes that one day, all his hard work will be remembered and “justly rewarded” by those he’s served on their way up the ladder. Asai isn’t a bad person; he’s responsible, faithful to his wife and hardworking, but his job is of paramount importance to him, and his one great character flaw is his complete indifference to his wife as a sentient being. He “valued money above everything,” and right below his attitude to money, in the hierarchy of his characteristics, is Asai’s dread of scandal and losing his respectability.
And then there are the images of Eiko who’s dead when the novel opens, and yet the impressions of this rather sad woman remain:
It wasn’t uncommon for her to spend two or three days at a time lying on the sofa, claiming to be too tired to do any housework. Asai never complained. He’d go out shopping and do all the cooking and cleaning himself.
She had two completely different sides. Asai often wondered if she was bored staying at home with him. She certainly came to life whenever she went out anywhere.
Asai is surprised after Eiko’s death to learn from one of the women in Eiko’s haiku circle that his deceased wife wrote over 150 haiku:
“It was a case of quantity over quality, I imagine,” he said.
Imagine how shocked Asai is to learn that his wife actually had talent, and according to the haiku teacher Eiko’s death has cut short the writing life of a truly gifted woman. Oh the irony–Eiko becomes more interesting and valuable to Asai in death than she ever was in life. And then it makes sense why we know nothing about Asai’s first wife. She was a blank, just like Eiko would have been a blank if not for the clues left behind in the haiku.
I’ve read only a few Japanese novels, and now I’m determined to read more. Yes, probably crime novels, but A Quiet Place is much more than a crime novel, it’s a character study, so don’t let that genre tag put anyone off. This is a slow-burn novel about how, in spite of the greatest planning and self-discipline, a middle aged man’s life goes off the rails.
Suggestions for further books welcomed.
Translated by Louise Heal Kawai