This short novel in three parts (only a little over 1l0 pages) comes with high praise. From Nobel Prize winner Oe Kenzaburo: "Have we failed to catch the calm but earnest tone that echoes like music through Levy Hideo's prose? With his unique literary voice, this writer clearly represents a new kind of novelist for Japanese literature...." And from Tawada Yoko, author of The Naked Eye: "Discovering this book is like meeting a fascinating person. Never before and never since have I encountered such a magical book...."
The author, Ian Hideo Levy, writing as Levy Hideo, is the first white American to write a novel in Japanese. He was born in 1950 to a Jewish father and a Polish mother in Berkeley, California. He grew up in the United States, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan where he went to live with his father in the American consulate in Yokohama when he was 17. He went to Princeton, earned a doctorate there, and joined the faculty as an assistant professor of Japanese literature when he was 28. His novel was published in Japan in 1992, it was translated (by Christopher S. Scott) in 2011.
Start with the title, A Room Where the Star Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard. The Japanese title is Seijoki no kikoenai heya (星条旗の聞こえない部屋). "heya" is "room"; "kikoenai" is "cannot be heard"; and I had to look up "seijoki" which means "the Star Spangled Banner." (I was impressed that Japanese has one word for our national flag.) So the English title is about as literal as you can get.
The story is set in 1967, a time of student protests against the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, and 17-year-old Ben Isaac is living in the Yokohama consulate with his strict father, Chinese step-mother, and 4-year-old half brother. He wants to learn Japanese and begins classes at W University. Ben becomes consumed by the language, the difference between what he's taught in class and what he learns on the street, the difficulties with reading Japanese, and the attitudes of the Japanese toward this blond, white American boy. He is befriended by an slightly older W University student, runs away from home, burns his identity card, and in the novel's third section finds work as a waiter in a Shinjuku restaurant.
As Scott says in his thought-provoking translator's introduction, "...Levy's work is about the struggle or productive tension between writing in Japanese and not being Japanese, or the dilemma of being a writer of Japanese but not a Japanese writer.... " Ben's father makes a familiar point when he tells Ben, "No matter how much you learn to speak their language, in their eyes you'll always be like me: a dumb gaijin who can't speak properly and never wanted to. Even if you go to the plaza in front of the Imperial Palace and scream 'Long live the Emperor!' in perfect Japanese and slit your stomach open, you'll never be one of them."
Perhaps not, and that tension between what Ben rejects—the America of his counsel father and his divorced and troubled mother—and what he wants—immersion in an entirely different language and culture—give the novel its power. As Scott says, "....it also looks back at postwar America and the sense of loss and disillusionment that the 1960s brought about. It is an elegy to a lost home, a requiem for a missing mother tongue."