“Look sir you’re not going to tell me that! Everyone knows stories! I just told you I slept in the same bed as my wife every night for the last fifteen years in the same bedroom of the same flat in the same suburb of Tokyo – and look at all you different people! You just have to tell me how you travel to work every morning in the place where you live and for me it’s a fable! It’s a legend! Sorry I am tired and a little stressed and this is not how I usually talk but I think when you are together like this then stories are what is required.”
Tokyo Cancelled by Rana Dasgupta is a modern day Canterbury Tales. A group of passengers get snowed in at an unnamed airport, on their way to Tokyo. They hunker down for the night in airport chairs, surrounded by cavernous, vacant halls. To pass the time, they tell stories.
From there, Dasgupta had a choice. He could have taken us into the passengers’ lives. We could have learned about why they were travelling, what was important to them, how they made the right choices or wrong choices in their lives, and how they came to be stuck at that airport. Dasgupta had other ideas, though. The stories the passengers told were modern day fables.
The book is a collection of thirteen of these fables framed in the overall story of being stuck at the airport. They stories are generally magical and filled with unexpected twists. Dasgupta writes clearly and simply, but still has wonderful imagery. Some of the stories have simple plots, and come to a resolution; others end with more questions than they began. The characters in the stories accept a magical world with few questions.
These are not children’s fairy tales, though. In many of them, they characters don’t live happily ever after. There may be morality lessons in some of them, but the lessons, if any, are far from clear. Good isn’t always rewarded and evil isn’t always punished. And in many cases, there is no good or evil — just a deep gray. And in this book, Dasgupta finds ways to write about nearly all bodily functions at some point. While not jarringly out of context in the stories, the material may not be appropriate for sensitive readers.
That said, it is a great book to read. The stories are fascinating, and Dasgupta does a nice job of pulling the reader in. When Dasgupta has a point to make, he usually has one character in a story speak it to the main character in that same story.
For example, one character describes the world of organized crime like this:
“`It’s a scintillating world; it’s a pyramid of mercury: and we have to be standing on top.'”
That’s one of the best descriptions of a treacherous balancing act that I’ve seen in a long time. I can see the poisonous material sliding out from underneath.
We also get this description of the nature of time:
“‘For you the present is easy to discern because it is simply where memory stops. Memories hurtle out of the past and come to a halt in the now. The present is the rock face at the end of the tunnel where you gouge away at the future.'”
The idea that the present is nothing more than where memory stops will keep me starting at my lava lamp for hours.
The point of the book may be that the only time things worthwhile actually happen is when something major completely disrupts people’s lives. They sleep walk through their routines, and big adventure like in the stories, or a simply travel mishap like in the framework may be all it takes to live a different life.
“Was it not at times like this, when life malfunctioned, when time found a leak in its pipeline and dripped out into some little pool, that new thoughts happened, new things began? Would they look back at this night and say that is when it started?”
The book is not perfect. I don’t think some of the stories needed to be as graphic at they were.
My other concern is the voice of the story. Each story “sounded” like the same story teller. Even “The Doll”, with its innovative layout, had the same language-feel as the others. This would not be a problem for me if it was just a collection of short stories. But Dasgupta chose to have passengers tell the stories. And all the passengers tell their stories the same way.
It’s still a great novel, though. Tokyo Canceled is a rare book that calls for a second reading. It’s difficult to get everything out of the early stories without having read the later stories. Each story itself brings its own setting, plot, and characters. Discussing the deeper meaning of these stories would be great way to pass the time with fellow passengers the next time I find myself stuck in an airport overnight.
Tokyo Cancelled; Dasgupta, Rana; Harper Perennial UK; Rs. 325