The centre of a narration is usually a fact, or more than one, at the limit a relation between events or people. The first thing we immediately ask the work of fiction, whether it’s a novel, film or theatrical piece, is to tell us who is on the scene, and immediately after what they’re doing. And then, in a cascade, how and why. Acquiring this information, we become more and more demanding as we read, as much as the author allows and narrates. We want to know everything or, better, everything we need to put incredulity to one side and lose ourselves in the story. Where the facts take place and when and, especially reading contemporary narrative, we’re used to meeting the person who will take us through the story from the very first lines – not actually the narrator’s voice (we have to meet that) but the real central players.
Here’s the young Holden, in blood, flesh and thoughts:
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
A contemporary novel very rarely, not to say never, opens describing a landscape for several pages. If relevance is given to the environment, and this happens more often in the classics than in contemporary writing by (and for) people used to the cinema who would be bored by a detailed description, it’s usually an image of the sky, a reference to the shape of some plants, to say the least, the details of an interior. Generally, a narrative doesn’t listen to the story of the area, that complex of nature and items that are the result of human ingenuity, in which we’re permanently immersed and our lives are consumed. However, a novel originally published in Japan in 2007, now published by Feltrinelli in Italy just over a month ago, starts like this:
State Road 263 connects the cities of Fukuoka and Saga and extends for about 48 kilometres from north to south through the Sefuri mountain area and the Mitsuse pass.
It recalls the incipit of The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andrić (1945) and while that recounts the course of a river in the surrounding area and the bridge over it, here the route of a road is followed:
It starts in Fukuoka, at the Arae junction in the Sawara district. […] From this point, State Road 263, which is also known here as the Saware municipal road, goes southwards. […] When it reaches this point, the previously flat road starts to climb slowly and, at the Suga sanctuary, it makes a wide bend to the right while the houses at its sides diminish and then it moves into the Mitsuse pass guided by the brand new asphalt and the white guard rail. […] There’s a toll road in the tunnel which is also known as the ‘Echo Road’, built to reduce the traffic jams that are caused in winter by the tight bends and the rapid ascents of the pass. The work started in 1979 and ended seven years later in 1986.
This is the beginning of the novel The Man Who Wanted Kill Me by the Japanese Shūichi Yoshida, the story of the disappearance of a girl, and the description of the pass. The geography of the roads that run alongside each other and intersect like “blood vessels under the skin” takes up the first three pages. Why? The author brings together the geographic, almost engineering, information and the story of the superstition that envelops those places, also the result of a human project – The Mitsuse pass has always been at the centre of mysterious stories.
Obviously, in this narration, the road is a living element. It pulses. It opposes supernatural force and the rationality of human processes with which man dominates the area. You realise from the apparently aseptic description of the incipit that something will happen there in those places. And, in effect, it happens.
One of the possible interpretations is that the road, here, symbolises choice. The traveller can decide whether to clamber up the pass or use the fast, paid, route through a tunnel, and the narrator explains that there are few people who prefer the alternative among the mountains to the motorway. However, shortly after, through the thoughts of a barber looking out of his shop window, the narrator says that, nearby, commuters are prepared to take the train that costs less but takes longer to cover the same distance just to save. He even works it out – whether the choice is to save 16 minutes or 720 yen, the life of a man is, on average, worth 1.6 billion yen. But few go to the Mitsuse pass, they would rather pay.
And, as often happens in literary works, the choice symbolised by the duplicity of the route is a metaphor for the life choice. There are two roads, two, perhaps, the men involved in the crime, the girl killed has a double life and she hid her nocturnal meetings from her friends and parents. The car, which runs along the road and stops there, on that pass, is like the weapon of the crime and, on foot, the escape takes place once again along those roads.
The road has always been the place of danger, meeting, merger and possibility in the imagination and it is usually an archetypal place. On the contrary, when they design, just as when they design any other building, engineers are called on to think of the structural, aesthetic, functional and usability aspects yet the fruit of their work is, to a certain extent, also a story and certainly the tangible testimony of a civilisation.
Then, if a writer turns an engineering work into a narration, that entirety arising from not distinguishing between the fields of application to the work is restored. As an engineer, Shūichi Yoshida, economist and narrator, materialises the road between Fukuoka and Saga; he forges it in its actual size and, again like an engineer who, when planning a work, imagines it for the people who will use it, humanises it with his story.