Keeping the promise

Keeping the promise

Lalitha Subramanian reviews Hideo Yokoyama's novel Seventeen

 Seventeen is uniquely Japanese in its feel: There is minimalism and high philosophy combined with base human emotions and actions, especially those involving powerful people.

News fades away, but stories stand the test of time.’ Thus speaks prolific Japanese novelist Hideo Yokoyama in the preface to his newly translated Japanese novel, Seventeen (originally in Japanese as Climber’s High, 2003; also made into a film of the same name in 2008). Like the protagonist of Seventeen, Yokoyama was a newspaper reporter with a regional newspaper north of Tokyo. In fact, the novel itself obviously mirrors greatly his real-life experience at the paper while covering the horrific 1985 crash of a JAL passenger airliner.

 Seventeen is a tense drama set in the environs of a regional newspaper, the North Kanto Times, amidst the background of a major air crash that happens almost at its doorstep, in the nearby mountains.

While it is not the thriller it is termed to be, Seventeen still packs a pretty punch as a fly on the wall look at the internecine power play in a newspaper office, happening through a week while a national tragedy is covered. As the author informs, the novel’s plot combines the real-life JAL plane crash of 1985, with the fictional struggles of NKT’s chief reporter, Kazumasa Yuuki.

 This 40-year-old reporter is a seasoned police beat investigator, who has also been party to an earlier police case that had happened locally a decade back in the selfsame mountains, covered by a young Yuuki and the older reporters – who were then able to live off the stardom afforded by that case.

The present case sees some of the older stars, now managers, unwilling to give up the spotlight to the young enthusiastic reporters covering this new case — and Yuuki is the one who gets caught in the middle, trying to do the right thing for the hardworking youngsters.

As an experienced reporter who has shunned management, Yuuki finds himself appointed as in-charge of the JAL crash news desk, a task he does sincerely and ethically – thus getting into clashes with less principled colleagues, especially those in circulation and advertising.

 There is, however, much more to this tale other than office politics. There are parallel threads involving issues like family relationships (Yuuki and his disconnect with a teenage son), the deathly mountains and the irresistible challenge of their steep rock faces; an older colleague cum climbing enthusiast Anzai, with whom Yuuki was supposed to do a very difficult climb – something that happens 17 years later, with Anzai’s son, 30-year-old Rintaro.

While the bulk of the story takes place in 1985, the significant follow up happens in 2002 — when the death-defying climb is ultimately attempted, putting to rest some unsolved questions.

It is a dense novel that obviously moves back and forth as needed. In essence, the story starts in 2002, with a none too enthusiastic veteran Yuuki setting off for the climb in the company of his young, enthusiastic and confident climbing companion Rintaro.

But an old promise was made to an old friend; it needs to be kept and hence this almost foolhardy scaling of a mountainous sheer vertical rock face that has claimed innumerable lives.

 Expectantly, the story soon plunges back into the past, to 1985, when it all happened. A climb was planned – but a horrific plane crash has happened in the treacherous mountains close by.

‘In the still of the newsroom, muted voices started up like pattering raindrops...’ Through the week, the younger reporters do their work: they climb, trek through dirt and forest, experience it all, traumatised by the sight of limbs strewn around. They report back, send faxes – and get enraged when a hard-won story gets pushed to an inner page.

 A scoop, the cause of the crash, gets unearthed; but failing confirmation, it does not get printed. A bigger national paper goes ahead, despite doubts. NKT, the smaller paper, seemingly loses again – and chief reporter Yuuki feels responsible.

 A grieving mother and child come to the newspaper office in search of some copies to carry home as mementoes. Yuuki gives a bundle to the grateful mourner; he understands: ‘‘She’d taught him something. Detailed informative articles. Beyond any doubt, that was why local papers existed.’’

 Seventeen is uniquely Japanese in its feel: There is minimalism and high philosophy combined with base human emotions and actions, especially those involving powerful people. The newspaper office has two informal but significant factions, one aligned to the chairman, another to the managing director. Amidst their wrangling, the ordinary employee gets caught, sometimes with long-term consequences.

 This is a literary piece of work, typically tranquil, even technical as needed – viz. the penultimate mountain climb scenes, so beautifully written. Seventeen deserved to be filmed. 

As 57-year-old Yuuki conquers his fears to achieve the impossible, he gets his answer to Anzai’s riddle, ‘I climb up to step down’. There is closure, peace.