Year of the Boar
Chapter 6 from "Notes of a Gaijin"
My one quarrel is with words - which contrive to escape our minds. Even my native Russian contrives against me, and regarding Japanese, I generally keep quiet. So that we don't forget our words, we either need to be born a genius, master some kind of mnemonic trick, or hammer them home from dawn till dusk.
* * *
But not only that. They still need secure memorization, probably with the aid of a distinguished teacher. Take the word "inoshishi", which I heard for the first time, long before the coming of the Year of the Boar. However, this word was taught to me in such a way that I immediately had it memorized for life. And not only myself - but everyone who happened to be present in the class.
On that day we bought a Christmas-tree. Or rather Shishkina bought one and I helped her. After Christmas, trees were especially cheap. Actually, there weren't any really, they'd already been put away to the back of some storeroom - but at the request of two crazy gaijin who'd overslept the holiday, they were dragged back out again. Such eccentricity was marvelled at here, and so the plastic tree cost Shishkina just a quarter of the price. Her glasses sparkling, she smiled at the oncoming bus and in her thoughts she was already celebrating with champagne and "Olivia" salad.
* * *
'Vadichek, have you got the movie "The Irony of Fate"?'
'No I haven't. Ask Fyodor, he has that kind of thing.'
'Are you working now?'
'No, I've got Japanese today. It's Saturday. Why don't you come too?'
'Why go there? I've no reason to. Anyway, drop by tomorrow. We'll pour you some vodka.'
She winked and stepped with her tree onto the bus. On the steps she suddenly turned around.
'Oh no, Vadichek, I need to go to the pharmacy. What's Japanese for "ascorbic acid"?'
'I'm also serious.'
'Oh go on with you!'
The bus door hissed and closed.
The class filled up slowly. Stationed at the front behind their desks, were a group of disciplined Chinese comrades. By the aisle, closer to the oil-stove, Philippine women were warming themselves up, spasmodically yawning after the night-shift. Coolly poised at the back was the Hindu Ramendra, while a little closer cooed a Paraguayan couple. As for my compatriots, there were none.
* * *
The lesson started with a surprise. Our favourite teacher had fallen ill, and a substitute was sent to take her place. The new sensei was young, slight and, from all appearances, inexperienced. In the environment of multi-suited gaijin, she was noticeably embarrassed, and was staring for the most part at the ceiling. The theme of the lesson was the causative-passive voice, and she illustrated it perfectly - her entire appearance expressed well-intentioned causation, coupled with hard luck.
Creaking, the door opened a little way and into the gap was pushed an inquisitive head in a motorcycle helmet. The owner of the helmet and head was called Benjamin. In the summer Benjamin went everywhere in shorts, and in winter - a cape. Now, it was winter and he reminded me of a field agent of the allied troops before the meeting with Russians on the Elbe. Sliding into the place next to me, Benjamin swept the helmet from his head and set it on the floor. Then he opened his rucksack, and began to extract his dry rations - two flattened hamburgers, a packet of crisps and a litre bottle of coca-cola. Setting all of this on the desk he signalled offering to divide his picnic meal. I politely declined. He shrugged his shoulders, scooped up a fistful of crisps and stuffed them in his mouth.
The lecture room reverberated with the sound of the grindings of millstone chomping. The teacher gave a start then stopped. I poked Benjamin in the side with my elbow. He froze his stuffed mouth then bent down and endeavoured to conceal his litre bottle from the condemning looks of the Chinese students. But the teacher continued with her silence, and so Benjamin had to partially retreat. The bottle, he moved to the floor, the crisps he put away, but the hamburgers he camouflaged with his helmet. The lesson resumed.
'Merry Christmas,' whispered Benjamin, 'how was the celebration?'
'I stuck up my thumb. He looked at me and frowned:
'Though I heard you celebrate later.'
'Are you Russian orthodox?'
I shook my head.
'An atheist then?'
I thought a moment then nodded.
'Sure. Look at me, you see I'm Jewish. I'm not allowed to work on a Saturday. Do you get it? On Saturday I can't work. Okay sure, we all need to relax, but I can't even read! Well they can stick their rules up their arse, I'm better off being an atheist.'
He cautiously removed from under his helmet the hamburger, thievishly glanced round and thrust it into his mouth. This time, his chomping was quiet and inoffensive.
'Let every sentence now that you think of, be with verbs in the causative-passive voice,' said the teacher. 'We'll begin with you.'
She timidly pointed her finger at the outermost Chinese. The Chinese man braced himself. In a couple of seconds he delivered:
'They made me work.'
'Very good,' said the teacher, 'now you.'
'They made me read a newspaper,' said another Chinese.
'They made me wash my feet,' said a third.
'They made me pay taxes,' added a fourth.
'They made me....m-m-m,' the Philippine girl stumbled.
'work without a contract,' assisted her friend.
It came to Benjamin's turn.
'They made me not eat,' he muttered gloomily.
'Hmmm,' the teacher grew thoughtful. 'You know, with a negative construction, this voice isn't possible...'
'No problem. They made me sit in hunger.'
'I'm sorry,' she even bowed, 'please help yourself.'
'Thanks,' Benjamin shoved into his mouth the second hamburger.
'Now you,' she turned towards me.
'They made me drink vodka,' I said.
'What was that?' she was amazed.
'You see. It's because I'm Russian. They pour - I have to drink. There's nowhere to hide.'
'This is what, every day?' she looked perplexed.
'No, not every. For instance, on holidays. Like tomorrow for New Year - so once again they'll make me drink vodka. It's a kind of tradition.'
'That's really interesting,' she said, 'would you mind telling us in more detail about Russian New Year traditions? After all they're of course different to the Japanese ones?'
'In some ways they're similar,' I said. 'Take for example these animals of yours. The monkey, the dragon... In Russia your animals have been fashionable now for around twenty years.'
'Really?!' She was amazed. At this point she suddenly remembered, 'only the animals aren't Japanese. They came to us from China.'
The Chinese students began to nod in unison.
'By the way!' she exclaimed unexpectedly, her face lit up with inspiration. 'Do you know the legend about these animals? Why the mouse was counted first?'
Nobody knew. Not even the Chinese.
'The legend goes like this,' delighted, the teacher began. 'A long time ago the Chinese Gods decided to choose twelve animals to number the months - and to also make them Gods. They summoned the mouse and charged it with informing all the other animals.'
'They made the mouse inform,' I said, showing off the causative-passive voice.
'Absolutely right. And so the mouse searched for everybody and informed everyone. The bull wanted to be first and so it left on its journey three days in advance. It arrived at the house of the Gods earlier than everyone else and waited. But when the door was opened and the Gods came out onto the threshold, the mouse jumped off the back of the bull on which it had secretly been riding - and so appeared first. And the bull came second. In third place was the tiger which ran swiftly but left later than the bull. In fourth - the hare. And so on. Then in last place came the inoshishi.'
'Who came last?' I asked.
'Inoshishi,' reiterated the teacher.
Nobody knew that word.
'Inoshishi...' Benjamin pronounced thoughtfully. 'So what's that?'
'It's a wild animal,' said the teacher. 'It lives in the forest.'
She took a marker and endeavoured to depict the mysterious animal on the board. It came out resembling a mammoth, only the trunk was shorter.
'Boar!' guessed Benjamin.
'In my opinion it's a mammoth,' I said.
'Call that a mammoth? When did you come across the Year of the Mammoth? Come on, let's ask.' He appealed to the teacher. 'What does this animal say? I bet it goes "oink-oink".'
'Or, maybe, "hroo-hroo"?' I suggested.
At this point the whole class started to grunt in various harmonies. The teacher thought it over.
'Inoshishi says "boohi-boohi" she said finally. Because it's like a pig.'
'I said it was a boar!' Benjamin was delighted with himself. 'I knew it wasn't a mammoth.'
'Inoshishi arrived in last place,' continued the teacher, but suddenly faded into nothingness, grew pale and gasped air fish-like with her mouth. From the sidelines it seemed to me as if Major John Smith had accidentally blurted out to Major Von Hapen the truth about his mission, leading him straight towards disaster.
Benjamin's long nose sensed something was cooking. With a characteristic absence of tact he threw the provocative question at this point, which was already spinning around in each of our heads:
'Why was it, I wonder, he came in last?'
The teacher staggered; she grabbed the back of her chair ready to sink lifelessly down onto the floor. After struggling for half a minute she was successful in conquering her faintness to muster the strength to say:
Strictly speaking this answer could be now considered exhausted. But asserting her natural honesty our teacher didn't allow herself to come to a full stop, by passing over the most important point. She surveyed the class helplessly, gathered a little more air into her chest, braced herself and said,
It turned out to be a falsestart. In a moment, she would run out of steam. She started again from the beginning.
Another falsestart. The teacher unexpectedly produced a nervous giggle and bit her lip. We all were extremely intrigued and waited for her to continue. Even the cool Ramendra stretched out his scrawny neck afraid to miss a single word.
'Inoshishi didn't just oversleep,' she managed to say in the end. 'You know, when big inoshishis want to give birth to little inoshishis, they... they then... oh...'
Once again she jammed up. Her little fingers clutched the collar of her blouse and her permed ringlets froze. She finally sunk into a stupor.
Benjamin half rose bewildered, he glanced round at all those present at a loss, rubbed the bridge of his nose and dug his fists into the desk. Then he asked in a loud and distinct voice:
'You mean to say that the boar was busy having sex?'
The teacher started, as if electrified, flared pink and dropped her eyes.
'Exactly that,' she mumbled, looking at the floor. 'So he was late.'
The scale of her embarrassment was such, it was as if this misdemeanour had been committed by she herself, and not the mythical old-testament boar. As if we were strict head teachers who had summoned some pupils to the office for breaking the rules. In the air there hung a heavy, causative-passive awkwardness. Nobody knew how to take its leave.
'And what came next?' asked one Philippine girl finally.
'Next?' repeated the teacher in a flat voice. 'Next the cat arrived. She was late because the mouse deceived her, by naming the wrong day. And the cat got nothing. Ever since all cats have been trying to catch mice.'
'A really beautiful legend,' said the Paraguayan Jose. 'I will tell it to my daughter before she goes to bed. Thank you.'
The bell rang.
Benjamin's solitary bicycle was covered in snow. The seat, handlebars and pedals were decorated with small snowdrifts. 'Shit!' muttered Benjamin, he lifted his steel steed into the air and shook it energetically. The snow fell down and mingled with the December slush.
'I just don't get them,' said Benjamin. 'Listen. In summer they drove me to see some shrine called, I can't remember. At that time there was a festival. Just imagine the scene: a crowd of almost naked men in their outstretched hands carries an enormous wooden phallus. And on it sit broads who want to marry. No less than a dozen.'
'And then it turns out to be garbage! As for riding on a phallus, then we'll do that anytime, yes please! But telling a fairytale - it immediately undermines our modesty. It just doesn't hold together.'
'East is east,' I said, 'and west is west.'
'Ah, of course... It's only in the west the boars screw. In the east they do something such as words just can't express. Finally it turns out that words are just inappropriate here because it's Zen or whatever it calls itself?'
'Most likely it's the echo of Confucianism,' I said. 'And the phallus cult - that's a component of Shinto. Actually, many different things live together here, they've always had it like this. A syncretic culture.'
He pulled a face.
'Their culture already does this to me. My head's splitting. OK, we're decided together - we're gonna be atheists. Right?'
'You bet. We're going to read books on Saturday.'
'Well, Happy New Year!'
Benjamin leant on the pedals and jolted forward slicing through the air with his helmet. His pelvis went from side to side in a pendulum motion, his cape was fluttering like Hercules' chiton, the wheels skidding and spluttering in the slushy snow. He reached the crossroads, foppishly leaned to the side and vanished at the bend.
Carefully picking her way through the slush with her shoes, our teacher passed by me. I stood with my arms at attention and ceremoniously bowed.
Translated from Russian by Sian de Lacy