Los Altos Hills. It's a beautiful Spring morning. It's 11 o'clock. May 29. There is a student strike, evidently. Luke, a young American, has just arrived in California.
So now I am going to describe this evening at Mark's, to explain in
any case what were, to my knowledge, the main events which
characterized it. I reached the blue house around ten after nine, by
taxi. Thickly overgrown grounds surround the huge stucco house, whose
ornate architecture, juxtaposition of apparently disparate elements
and unusual color are always surprising, even to someone who has
already observed it often, when it appears at the turn of a path in
its frame of royal palms. As I have the impression of being a little
ahead of time, that is, of finding myself among the first guests to
cross the threshold, if not
However I soon recall Mark's words on the phone, that he has found two women to introduce to me, from foreign countries as I've had no luck with the American women. When I hurry in I spot one of them right away--Theresa, who must be from France due to her French name Thérèse. Fortunately I have studied French, for three years in high school, although that was ten years ago and I hardly remember anything. I wait for Oe Senri's "Glory Days" to play so that I can ask her to dance, but settle for "Boys Kiss Girls" by Watanabe Misato, which is close enough. I then say in my best imitation of French: "Voulez-vous bien me permettre de dancer avec vous?"
She responds: "Votre Français pue! Vous voyez, votre truc, avec moi, ça ne marche pas!" Or something like that.
Unfortunately with my poor French I cannot understand what she is saying. Her use of exclamation marks at the end of both sentences implies a strong response, but it is impossible to tell if it is positive or negative. Her first statement is clearly an expression of surprise at my French ability. That leaves the second as the response to my invitation. Why couldn't she use some simple phrase I know like "oui" or "bien sur" or "enchantée" or "J'aimerait bien si vous me permettez de dancer avec vous"?
On further reflection, however, I realize that she is in fact quoting from some great work of literature, showing off her superior cultural upbringing, and coincidentally it is something that I've read quite recently, which to my good fortune narrows things down quite a bit, as it would then have to be from either Lesson 13 of French in Action by Pierre Capretz, et. al., or Alain Robbe-Grillet's Oeuvres Complètes.
Now as Theresa is a native French speaker, there is hardly any reason for her to read French in Action. That leaves Robbe-Grillet, which is remarkable given her miserable taste in literature. But which novel? "Voyez" would seem to imply his second published novel, Le voyeur, while "truc" clearly refers to Franck's truck that has so many engine problems in the third novel La jalousie. "Moi," on the other hand, points to the fourth novel Dans le labyrinthe which notably begins with "je" and ends with "moi" with no other mention of the first person in the book. However it is the doubly emphatic "marche" and "pas" (which means "step" in French) that settles the matter--clearly the phrase is from the fifth work La maison de rendez-vous which features the narrator extensively walking through the gardens of the Blue Villa and throughout Hong Kong.
What a piece of luck! This is one of my favorite novels, and I've read it many times. And I see right away where the phrase fits in: The girl Laura or Lauren is sought after by two men, one being Georges Marchat (who by the way is a wimp no woman would ever want) whom she rejects, and the other being Ralph Johnson, the American, whom she accepts, thus ensuring the novel's happy ending. So Theresa's quotation must be from one of these scenes, and all I have to do is find which one. Given that it is the American she accepts and that I too am American it must surely be the latter case.
In the last row on left as you walk down the center aisle of the basement of Stanford's Green Library you will find section PQ2835, which I am well familiar with, where Robbe-Grillet's works can be found. Visitors are allowed in only seven days a year, and this is already my last day, but there is important research to be done. They have not only the American but also the British translation of La maison de rendez-vous, and the latter even translates the title: The House of Assignation, which would be helpful if I knew what assignation meant. However this version also translates "the American" as "the Englishman", or perhaps "the Brit", which makes it likely less favorable to me. So I turn instead to Richard Howard's version, which, being in English, gives no clue as to where Theresa's phrase might fit in.
It is then that I realize my mistake: Theresa's name is not Marie-Thérèse, as I had thought, but rather Marie-Ange or perhaps Angélica, the same confusion afflicting the narrator of Angélique ou l'enchantement in the passage starting on page 59! Unfortunately this novel has never been translated into English, but I am easily able to make out the major elements of the plot: Angélica, whose name by page 74 has become Carmina or Mina or Carmen, meets the handsome and tall French soldier Pierre Simon during the second war against Uruguay. They dance together to some aria from a Wagner opera, but Marie-Ange, whose real name is Morgen, turns out to be an evil sorceress, and Corinthe disappears from the magical forest, never to be seen again!
I turn back to Theresa to tell her that her trick won't work with me. I'm surprised to find, though, that enchantress that she is she has disappeared completely, and sitting in her place is Mae, whom I had not noticed before. Mae is Japanese, a language which I am unfortunately completely unfamiliar with. So I ask her in English if she'd like to dance, hoping they'll play Kyon Kyon's "Anata ni aete yokatta", a nice slow song perfect for cheek time, but instead the song is Princess Princess's "Get Crazy!", not much of a dancing song really, more of a walking song to be honest, but one can't be too picky.
Mae looks up at me, smiles rather ambiguously, and replies
something that sounds very close to
and which, needless to say, I cannot understand at all.
I stare at these mysterious symbols, trying to make some sense out of them. It's hopeless. The only thing to do is to look them up in a dictionary. Mark doesn't have a Japanese-English dictionary and I've used up my last day at Stanford, so the only place left is Kinokuniya Shoten in San Francisco's Japan Town.
Now one of the problems with Japanese is that they don't bother putting spaces between any of the words. Thank goodness for the comma (well it sort of looks like one) near the end. On the positive side, Japanese uses three different alphabets--the kanji, which are Chinese characters, and hiragana and katakana, two phonetic alphabets, along with roman letters and arabic numerals. So the change from one alphabet to another could well signal a break between words.
First, though, I need to look up each of the symbols. I pick up a copy of Japanese Character Dictionary With Compound Lookup via Any Kanji by Spahn and Hadamitzky, the best Kanji-English dictionary currently available (note how the Japanese title 漢英熟語リバース辞典 is much more concise, albeit ambiguous), and search for the first character. This dictionary allows you to look up a character in one of two ways--either by a highly effective modified radical system of the authors' design, or by pronunciation. Pronunciation is clearly useless, and my total lack of familiarity with Japanese makes use of the radical system practically impossible. So I decide to simply go through the book comparing it to every character.
I reach the last page having not noticed the character anywhere! I'm about to start over from the beginning when I realize that perhaps it's not a kanji after all, but rather hiragana or katakana. Surprisingly these are completely absent from this book, so I have to look at another book, Kanji and Kana by Hadamitzky and Spahn. This book not only has hiragana and katakana charts, but shows you how to write them and how many strokes each has. I have no trouble finding そ, which is pronounced "so" and turns out to require two strokes according to this book, although I'd swear most people are lazy and write it with one. Just two down from そ I find the next character の, pronounced "no", and on the very same line the fourth and fifth characters に ("ni") and ね ("ne"). So everything is in hiragana. The third character, however, is nowhere to be found in either kana chart, so it must be kanji after all. This book has it's own kanji list, although much less detailed than the one of Spahn and Hadamitzky; it also uses the historical radicals. The list is much shorter, and I find the character nearly immediately, kanji number 84, with Chinese (on) pronunciation "NAI" or rarely "DAI" (which I can't recall ever hearing) and Japanese (kun) pronunciation "uchi".
So now I have everything--my guess is that Mae's phrase is four words long: "sono uchi ni, ne". Notice that I use the Japanese pronunciation of the kanji, since it's not part of a compound. All that remains is to look up what these words mean, and I tremble with excitement as I pick up Obunsha's Comprehensive Japanese-English Dictionary, a truly remarkable dictionary in that it is quite comprehensive, including a generous selection of example sentences, while retaining a compact size. Another feature is the use of kana for all headings, rather than romaji like in those dictionaries intended for stupid gaijin.
I start out with uchi, which must be the most straightfoward word, and indeed it is, meaning "house". Ni is much more problematic--it could be at, in, on, to, for, or into. My friend Naoko, whom you may remember as the heroine of Murakami Haruki's bestselling novel Norwegian Wood (which I recommend reading in the original--Birnbaum's translation is terrible), tells me that "in" would probably be the best interpretation in this context.
There's no mistaking ne, that seductive feminine ending encouraging, seeking agreement.... That just leaves sono, which is clearly "that", but already this is problematic, because ano, another "that" which implies a shared knowledge, would be much more appropriate here, since we both clearly know what house she is talking about.... And what's more Naoko claims this phrase would never be used in this context at all, unless for example there was a party every week, and even then the kanji would hardly be used....
I'm reminded of a great joke by Peter Lasky, known as Pete to his friends and Lasky-san to his really good friends:
I first learned that kondo means "this time".Well, maybe you have to have lived in Japan to appreciate that one.
Then I found that it means "next time".
Now I know it means "never".
I'm beginning to doubt that Mae is really Japanese after all. To start with, what about this name "Mae"? Does that really sound Japanese to you? Looking in P.G. O'Neill's Japanese Names, admittedly a bit dated, it's nowhere to be found save as a surname. And wasn't there until recently a place named "Mae's Latin Cafe" on the corner of University and Cowper, a couple blocks from where I live? Admittedly she does look remarkably like the actress Minami Kaho, who plays a character named Mai (which despite not appearing in O'Neill's book is a real name) in Matsubara Toshiharu's classic dorama Kekkon shitai otokotachi. Yamaguchi Tomoko is much cuter, though.
So now we can piece together her response:
sono -- that
uchi -- house
ni, -- in
ne -- right?
Typical Japanese conciseness, but the meaning is clear: She's accepted my invitation, as long as we dance indoors! I reach down to sweep her off her feet and onto the dance floor, but Mae is nowhere to be found, and looking into the next room, I see her dancing with Theresa....
This scene, however, has taken place after I've left. So I must be outdoors, then, looking in through a crack in the blinds, which haven't quite been closed properly, and indoors seems so brightly lit and cheerful contrasted to the black walls of the house which blend seamlessly with the night sky. Inside, the stereo plays Oe Senri's "Anta ni aete yokatta". Outside it is snowing.
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