- The Men in My Country
At the age of 30, Marilyn Abildskov decided it was time for a change. On something close to a whim she moved from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Matsumoto, a medium-sized city in the mountains of Japan, where for two years she taught English to junior high school children each weekday and held a conversation class with a group of businessmen once a month. Seven years after returning to the States she wrote The Men in My Country, a book about her relationships with three men within the final six months of her stay in Japan. The Men in My Country is a carefully shaped book that maps the inexplicable territory of romantic and cultural estrangement and assimilation. In two cities in the mountains of Japan Abildskov learns a great deal about love from three very different men. Men she would not meet in Utah. She tells the story of these love affairs in a manner that is both delicate and deliberate, which is very Japanese. [End Page 152]
There is more of Japan in the style of her prose than in her descriptions. Abildskov wastes no ink telling us about the splendors of Japan. While she tours a few temples and collects some very nice blue-and-white porcelain dishes, her attention is not on the icons of Japanese culture. There are no descriptions of Kabuki or No plays, no trips to war memorials in Hiroshima or Nagasaki, no mention of what the locals think of the films of Kurosawa and Ozo. I wanted to see the countryside, take a sip from a ceremonial teacup, and was initially disappointed in the tight focus of Abildskov's travel memoir. She says she went to Japan "because of a desperate desire to escape my own solitary, unsatisfying, singular skin. . . . I didn't understand how it happened, this ending up alone over and over again." This is a book about getting from wherever you are to wherever you are going. You don't need to leave home to get there, although I think it helps a good deal.
Abildskov doesn't tell us much about her first 18 months in Japan. She notices Nozaki, one of the students in her adult conversation class, because he is not like the other men who want to practice English by talking about golf and sex. He reads Updike and one important night he holds her gaze one beat too long. This is significant in a country where it is rude to look someone directly in the eye. This happens sometime during her first year in Japan. Despite her attempts to regain his attention nothing transpires until her farewell party, a night of dinner and drinks hosted by her adult students and held just weeks before she is to leave Japan. Here, at last, they hook up. They talk privately in front of the others, another highly significant departure from good Japanese etiquette. The night ends with them reclining on a double bed in a motel room. This begins her heart-over-head love affair with Nozaki, a man who is both "intense and detached; involved and indifferent; a man who feels guilt in a country of shame."
At this time she is also seeing a married Japanese professor, who is never named (they talk and don't have sex), and Amir, a single Iranian man (they talk and have sex). There is both an excess of drama and a paucity of emotion in her telling, much like her description of a Rothko painting: "something can be both subtle and clear, large and intimate, arresting and absent." Her prose has all of these attributes in near-perfect balance.
Here is an apt example: "In a few weeks he [Nozaki] moves to the center of my story, becomes the reason I feel such an unruly mix of guilt and chagrin and exhilaration and shame. In a few weeks, he becomes the reason a new definition of travel emerges for me. Travel as seduction. Travel as education. Travel as a way...