This is the other piece I translated for the contest. This one I was not as happy with, but it was pretty challenging. The original Japanese piece had a lot of super long sentences that would just be ridiculous run-off sentences if put in English. However, they reflected the main character’s neurotic-ism(?) through that sort of writing style, so I wanted to preserve it somewhat. It turned out alright, though! The original is HERE.
Anyway, here is another silly story (apparently it’s an essay) from Japan. Please excuse any weird formatting stuff; copying from Word has unpredictable results.
Pansee (Thoughts) of Hatred for Barbershops
From Oparaban / Auparavant
The shovel car gives the final remaining wall in the northwest corner of the site two or more good punches, reducing the stone to bits, and from within the dense cloud of dust the gaudy sign of a large electronics store came gradually into view. I stood at the entranceway door of the building facing the property across the street, staring at the sight in silence, as if a package I had been patiently waiting for had finally arrived. The demolition job had apparently been started in the morning by a temporary team who I believe were sent from the temp worker agency, which included three black labourers driving the shovel car and truck. The job was already mostly done by the time I arrived; the shovel car’s shovel, looking like a bird with its head folded into its neck, was taking aim for the final backhand hit. The rock made a dull sound and from that it collapsed with an unimaginable brittleness, indiscriminately piling up into a mountain of rubble. The steel palm scooped it up and threw it onto the bed of the truck. As the ever monotonous work was repeated, the stone house that had briefly crossed paths with me was soon to be gone forever. The chairs, sinks and types of large mirrors had apparently already been taken out by traders, so once the yellowish brown floor’s matte tiles and the small signs were removed, there would not be a single trace that this was once a barbershop.
I hate barbershops. When I was young, just hearing “barber” would cause my body to stiffen up, and sitting in that mechanical chair would get me screaming at the top of my lungs, furiously going toe-to-toe with the barber who would be trying to hold me down. The same sort of battle would be reproduced atop the dentist’s chair, so it may just be that my cowardly self was afraid of sharp blades, but I also hated that mirror reflecting my flabby face and could never grow a liking to the full transfiguration my face would go through between getting on and off that chair. I must have been around four when my father, after getting very angry at me, colluded with the owner of the shop we frequented to give my head a buzz cut, and now the only picture of me in my whole life with that buzz cut – me sitting on the banks depressed that night – still comes back to life in my mind from time to time. From that day forward, of course, I never put myself in a situation where I would get a buzz cut again, but that’s not to say my natural disdain for barbershops was cured; my pain has been nurtured over many stages, implemented as a powerful thought that surpasses even physiology.
To start off, conversing while having my hair cut is agonizing. I have no patience for being forced to listen to uninteresting gossip or being interrogated about my personal life, so to cut my hair (which I grew out as much as I could) I would deliberately go to a far removed town and head out to a shop I have never entered, like I was someone pushed into getting a haircut by a passing urge, and harden myself in a silence excusable for an outsider, trying not to be tempted into confession by their prodding. Up until now, what became the moment that made me into even more of a bullheaded anti-barbershopist, was the episode somewhere along the way where I was asked during a hair washing, “does anywhere feel itchy?” conveyed to me in a slimy voice. Within the line that escaped your lips in that moment, where the use of my arms was taken away and I was bent over the sink trying to cope with my snow-white bubbled hair, praying silently that hot water doesn’t enter my ears, you were overflowing with the conviction that somewhere just had to be itchy. So when timid I, unsure of how to respond, mustered up the courage to open my mouth – to respond that I did not come because something was itchy but because I wanted my hair cut – hot soapy water came flowing in from both edges of my lips and the content I needed to transmit was drowned out by a disgraceful gurgling sound. I have no interest in making a big pageantry about my head being dirty in a voice louder than the shower while a number of other customers wait in line in the corner, but let us say that somewhere really was itchy: for someone who cannot even properly explain an itch on his back, there is no way I could ever specify the epicenter of an itch born on my head, which is already in an extremely tiled posture making it hard to even tell what is up from down, left from right.
Apart from whether that mechanically thrown out phrase came about from a private announcement amongst the barbers association or learned in a business journal as a new way of attracting customers, that line that seeps from staff during hair washing and the Mild Seven they suggest to you as you pay (but smells like paper) were phenomena shared amongst numerous stores, which I have painfully confirmed, and were meaningless and excessive services that just sickened me. Since I can request only a cut, if I had ordered that I simply wanted my hair snipped – no hair washing, no nothing – then perhaps it could have finished as such. However, the prisoner of the chair in front of that mirror is unable to put that one thing through his mouth. So I sought after a straight, hardy, phantom barber who would not do anything like puke out strange dialogue before washing a customers’ hair, and I had actually finally found a place that came close to my ideal. However, it was set up in a back street in Sakahashi and when it was time for a hair wash you had to kneel to move to a tiled sink in the corner where all the plumbing was gathered. The place collapsed a number of months after I started going there. Since then I’ve been walking the suburbs of strange lands, patiently putting up with unacceptable services until I meet a shop I can feel good about once more.
It happened one sunny afternoon in the southern suburbs of Paris, where the air was serene, as I was hanging around Bourg-la-Reine. I had found a compartment of multiple stone houses touching shoulders with another all in one corner of a wide vacant lot, and I was drawn to the smallest one amongst them: a greyish white, silica stone bungalow with an attic. I first spotted it from the other side of the empty lot; the plundered empty landscape behind me gave off a vibe similar to a movie village set that had its filming discontinued. The back wall was made of stone, but the face of the backside had an appearance like paper-mache, with multiple boards piled against it, which strengthened my impression of the place. As I walked around the street, what stopped my eyes was the dull cast iron sign set up at the entrance indicating that it was in fact a barbershop and the ceramic swallows decorated as flying towards each other on either side on the gate lamps above the door. When I peeked inside, a red-faced elderly man who appeared to be the owner was placing himself in that chair I am so averse to, with arms crossed, and speaking with another man around his age. The numbers on the pricing sheet pasted to the glass window were prices less than two-thirds that of the market price in Paris.
But what really stopped me in my tracks there was not because of how rambunctious my hair had gotten; even if the prices were not such an easy load on my wallet, what really stopped me there was that the house protected by those two swallows just had an indescribably endearing look to it. The open lot surrounded by a low, gap-ridden wooden fence was touched on its southernmost area by a street with buildings, and a number of buildings ahead there was a six floor abandoned apartment with the entrance blockaded. I was easily able to grasp the reason why only that patch of land had continued on unable to ride the wave of development, without any explanation needed from others. The exposed barber had aged enough that if he assessed things calmly, he too would feel that it would be safer if the place was immediately rebuilt. For example, the rain gutter running along the alcove of the top area of the facade was bent and rotting on the far left. There was a small-scale water gun sprung forth from a bit of water that was falling straight down, and the house was in a state where a stain could be made in the wall or a hole made in the ground. Even the house itself was tilting to the left alongside with the gutter, and it seemed as if a portion of tiles were piling up in a clutter like chess pieces. Unlike the shops in town that were uniformly lit up by fluorescent lighting, what that place had was just natural light piercing through the double door windows, and perhaps because there were no customers, all the lights inside were off.
Be that as it may I pulled open the doors, treaded into the shop, and when the eyes of the two older men, who were debating amongst themselves so earnestly, were drawn to me I modestly approached the one who was the barber (as clearly shown through his clothing) that I had just passed by the shop during a stroll by chance, didn’t have an appointment, but wondered if I could get my hair cut. The old shopkeeper was taken aback and said, “Saying to do it now is an appointment, isn’t it? Well, come on then. So many visitors!” As instructed I sat on that truly outdated chair; it had a white cloth on its leaking backside and its weighted center base, fixed into the wood, was so considerably tilted forward that if you didn’t lean back you would go toppling towards the mirror. While continuing his conversation with the retired fellow sitting in the chair by the window, he prepared a towel dipped in hot water (which makes wringing it easier), and as I thought he was going to wrap it around my head to moisten it, he instead smooshes it into the shape of a ball and, starting from the sides, banged and squished it all over my head. Because his strength was unexpectedly strong, I had to track my meek self’s face rock fiercely left and right within the mirror, sitting in a chair that manually goes up and down using a gear. The chair was akin to something that, if it was my home country, you would only expect to find in the barbershop of an isolated island.
I was asked what sort of hairstyle I was looking for, so I quickly decided on what I wanted. I explained that unfortunately I didn’t like barbershops, so I wanted him to finish it quickly and if it was all made short enough – without any weird workmanship – so it split naturally in the center, that would be enough; I supplemented my poor wording by adding real hand movements: bangs about here, the hair above my ear about there. “Well then”, the old man raised his voice and turned to his conversation partner behind him, “hey, did you hear that? This is the first time I’ve ever had a customer come in and the first words from his mouth are that he hates barbershops. Even though this monsieur hates barbershops, he still came into my shop!” he laughed.
Nimbly wielding a razor-like tool devoted not to cutting hair but chipping it away, he began shortening my hair. However, he proceeded with his work after throwing only a small, rough towel upon my shoulders, as if the vinyl, arm-freedom-stealing, poncho-like straight jacket didn’t even exist. And so the snipped hair was slipping in between my clothes – not to mention onto my neck and shoulders – prickling my skin, and soon the scruff of my neck started to have a persistent, burning pain due the hair on it being scraped away without any soap applied. That alarmingly boorish customer service was enough to make me nostalgic for the passive humiliation of those overpolite Tokyo barbershops.
When I reviewed his work after he joyously declared its completion I found that the hair above my ears were uneven on either side, and when I was finally released after silently enduring a second scrape work, my hair was superbly shortened with my face becoming like the top of a boiled egg with some seaweed placed on it. With no energy left to even complain, all I conveyed was that it was shorter than anticipated and the old man, without even looking slightly perturbed, replied, “Sometimes that’s how it is”. Before I could get angry wondering what “sometimes that’s how it is” even meant, I let out a laugh, and savored a mysterious emotion within me that the foundation of my hate for barbershops was just completely overturned in a matter of minutes.
“A long time ago, someone I knew in the neighbourhood married a Japanese woman, and I took care of their son’s hair. You have flat, black hair very similar to that child. I’ve cut a Chinese person’s hair once, but that was hard like a baguette one day passed its expiry date. I wouldn’t be able to differentiate by just your face, but by touching your hair I could at least tell right away that you were Japanese.” The old man said this with confidence and while it was true that I was a person of the Land of the Rising Sun, I felt that a hair’s hardness or softness was not determined by race, but was different to each individual, and with that rebuttal as the spark, a conversation in the barbershop came to be, which was something I had never experienced before. Perhaps it was because he was so happy to have correctly guessed a customer’s nationality, but the old man’s mouth suddenly loosened up and he told me that a large supermarket was going to be built in the empty lot out back, with this building’s landlord agreeing to have this place torn down as well; in other words, they were hinting he was going to be evicted. He did not own the house. “Without my shop, I wonder if I will be able to support myself. I’m reluctant to move out because there are so many memories. If the buildings change, the people and the town will change, too. This is the only area lingering on, so now the city I love is as good as gone. Do you have a phrase for being thrown out into the cold? People losing their way, it doesn’t happen within a city crowded with buildings or in a natural forest, it’s something that happens on land that’s been stripped naked,” was how the old man put it.
The resident of the house three buildings down had already vacated, and although when it would happen was yet to be decided, there was no doubt that it was arranged to be torn down. The retired gentleman explained that since the entrance was blockaded, those who lost their homes have settled in and are living in a room without gas, electricity or running water. There are also recognizable faces amongst them and since it is unlikely they will do anything bad or make any noise, the others around the area pretend like they do not know they are there. The new me may make an expedition to that vacant house, prepared for a little danger. However, on that day, I was still only minimally attached to that Paris suburb house of silica stone, and furthermore, in the state I was in – desperately enduring the itch of the fine hairs crawling on my skin and still feeling the pain on the scruff of my neck from my defeat against the shaving – I was in no position to lament fate while pursuing a single house from a suburb of a different country I have no association with.
I was saved by that frank and manly (in other words overly rough) old man (who also cannot admit to any mistake); he was understanding of my anti-barbershopism with a smile and not once took part in excessive chatter while working, so it came to be that I had my hair cut at that shop from then on. It was once every two months (although there was one time three somehow passed by) where I would just suddenly get the urge, head out there, and be able to get in anytime without an appointment, so there was never any need to hold back as long I did not land on a holiday.
What brought the surrounding area of the white swallow adorned barbershop suddenly appearing before me with an irresistible magnetism was when on one fall night, after about a year had passed, I was touched by a collection of essays called “La Fortune” (“Fate”) written by an author whose name evokes imagery of someone living out in a mansion in the middle of the woods: Georges Olivie Chateau Reynaud. Not even very old – published in 1987 – it is handled and distributed as a cheap reprint, and when I picked it up in the ancient city of Vanves, nonchalantly flipping through the pages, there was a chapter called “The Ceramic Swallow”, where the author’s feelings of his visits to his grandfather’s house were expressed through short, but hot-blooded sentences. “If you want to make me into a fool, go right ahead, but for me, that one house in the suburbs decorated with ceramic swallows, and supporting a garage and arbor tree garden, was built in the centre of the Garden of Eden. The place Adam had been chased out of is this hidden house, the place Adam continued to harbour a heartbreaking nostalgia for is also here.” There was no garage or arbor, but the white swallow barbershop the old man continued to protect was truly his way of standing in the Garden of Eden. Chateau Reynaud’s descriptions are not limited to just his recollections. By saying that just one remaining house is connected to an individual’s memories, he avoids needless romanticization and sees suburbs themselves as a collective that can become a sort of saint. “Atop the world’s sea green oceans, those suburbs where unmoving fleets of houses are lined up, forever neighbouring each other side-by-side, are provided with a certain eternal holiness. The place we must live to be far removed from true nature’s violence, to be far removed from the indecent hustle and bustle of the city, and to be far removed from “evil”, is that place.”
Those houses that solidified their unity at the corner of Bourg-la-Reine’s building site were truly the “unmoving fleet.” It was also true that within the surrounding landscape where concretization progressed, so far removed from reality it could be mistaken for a stage set, the suburbs had an increasing, almost fictional holiness. Chateau Reynaud grandfather’s house where he spent his youth was in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois of the Essonne department, and every year he would “spend one or two seasons” there recuperating. If you roughly divide “Fate” which “Ceramic Swallow” can be found in, the first half is the title piece “La Fortune” and the latter half is a scattered collection of various pieces composed as critiques of the works of Henri Thomas, Bioy Casares, and George Orwell. Those particular texts, while belonging to the first piece, can be read as securing the emotional core of a boy who grew familiar with the authors who fed off the wild dreams that were lost with growing up.
“…..and so I was able to meet once again with my usual attic room, my plaster dog piggybank atop the North American pine bureau, and my actual, female dog: “The Spoiled Yupet”. She would frequently pester me to pet her, so every morning I would pet her 100 times to last her the day. The familiar cherry trees, gooseberry trees, rocaille well, and sunlit kitchen; I was able to succeed in meeting with those things again as well, but after my grandfather head out for the station, the smell of burnt bread hung in the air of the kitchen. While my grandmother spread butter across my bread, I was told a remarkable story from her youth. She, as a Eurasian, walked across Asia left to right and along those paths she witnessed countless exotic brutalities. What I found in Saint Genevieve was a safe, gentle world, and thanks to her story and my father’s anecdotes about his life as a prisoner of war, it had also become a precious place for me.”
Chateau Reynaud’s house was a citadel of goodness, protecting a young boy’s heart from evil. What I was imagining while intently reading this passage was obviously not an owned house, but the fate of a rented house: my barbershop. I have mostly never asked about the history of the shop and the old man’s story, or even inquired about the origins of the guardian ceramic swallow lamps that I have taken such an interest to. My vow to not engage in unnecessary chat at the barber’s had remained as unbroken as ever. However, from reading Chateau Reynaud’s work, I wanted to commit that sin for the first time. Since when has that stone house been built? Have the ceramic swallows been there since the time the old man moved there? I wanted immediately to satiate my inclination to go over there and confirm everything – but, I folded my ironed handkerchief into the notebook and brought myself under control. My hair was still too short for a haircut. I will be patient for a while longer, then when I head out there, I will ask him subtly. To tell the truth, what impressed me out of Chateau Reynaud’s essays was just that one piece, and it is hard to judge whether or not he is an author one should guilelessly praise. At the very least, I judged that it was not too late for him until I have at least opened the Prix Renaudot Award winning piece advertised on the back cover: “Le Faculté des Songes”, which I have yet to read.
I went to a number of bookstores, but was unable to find it, so thinking I did not need to go to those lengths, I obtained the novel straight from the publisher, read it in one sitting, and felt rewarded. The main character of the story was a stone house, left to be used as a future administration office in the centre of the building site for a university’s science department that was set to transfer to the suburbs. There was Canton, who was diligently working manual labour and living out of a cheap Paris hotel; Manoir, the ministry of finance official who got the nickname “Heavy Head” from his slow movements and dreamer personality; Hugo, the librarian and poet who was chased out of his home in the suburbs left to him by his grandparents due to the construction of a highway. Frustrated with their various sorrows and loneliness, they are drawn to this abandoned house as if they were being led by an unseen thread, and begin a strange communal lifestyle. That’s why the book’s “Faculté” has not the meaning of dream “potential”, but rather a dream “department”. The three of them each carried their dreams and gathered there, and the last member to join, a young woman and aspiring singer named Louise, was also a fitting person to learn at the dream department. In truth Louise had spent happy days in the house as a young girl and was now grown up. Now, reaching a dead-end in the world of adults, she has come back to the place steeped in memories from her youth. The four of them disperse after a while, but the temporary air of calmness clinging to the house that forms the backbone of the story was the exact same as that old man’s shop which converted me away from anti-barbershopism.
It was about two and a half months later when I headed once more to the old man’s barbershop with bothersome hair and Chateau Reynaud’s book in tow. However, what appeared then was not the one story stone building affected by the gradual flow of time, but a vacant lot dancing with dust. The machine arm wildly breaking away the few remaining skeletons of buildings left and right overlapped with the hand of the old man bombarding my head with a wet towel once upon a time, and every sway of the arm was like a dark pulse transmitting to my temple.
When I learned that the shop – which was called “The Swallow Chateau” – had secretly been fully absorbed into a construction site for a supermarket, I killed time at a neighbourhood cafe until the construction workers pulled out for the day and snuck into the site in the evening. With that I searched within the rubble under the light of a lighter for the ceramic swallows which fascinated me so, but where exactly they could have flown off to, I could not find a single trace of them.