Sitting with Professor H. in one corner of the covered café terrace opposite the main entrance to the Nara train station, we kept our eyes peeled for the three people we were supposed to meet. Like a couple of cops on a stakeout, in front of the large window, an old Japan Times spread casually out in front of us, we turned our spoons slowly in our cups while casually glancing down the esplanade which bustled with hundreds of people, trying to pick out Charlie or Rémi in the crowd, while I vaguely tried to picture the young woman Professor H. wanted to introduce me to (an admirer, he’d told me, which augured well).
A passionate Francophile and skillful go-between, Professor H. had planned to get the five of us together that day at Nara to take in the city’s traditional holiday, On matsuri, the last preparations for which were just underway: a couple of guys in fundoshi and long blue socks bearing the colors of their brotherhood scuttled across the esplanade with wooden rams in their hands to catch up with a procession that had just departed. Our quintet finally assembled, we hastily introduced ourselves to one another under a driving rain and left the station to go take up a position at the top of a sloped street where we waited for the procession to arrive, Rémi and Professor H. under a huge black umbrella, Charlie and my admirer squeezed together under a smaller transparent one, and myself a little to one side, my hands in my pockets, head down, my black wool hat pulled over my ears. Soon the first horsemen appeared, followed by a long silent procession bearing immense warlike standards that twirled in the wind and sagged under the rain. Unfathomable samurai in damascened armor filed slowly by, followed by hundreds of extras dressed in sumptuous costumes, pleated blue and lilac silks that the rain pressed against their bodies. Soaked and heavy, the tissue finally shed its colors bit by bit, which trickled down into the gutters in blue and white rivulets. Immobile, my collar pulled up around my neck, a few raindrops dribbling down my nose and cheeks, I watched the last breathless figures walking up the street in their soaking sandals, bent double under a torrential rain which became stronger and stronger, a thick, heavy, driving rain like a mobile wall of water that the wind spun in whirls under the stormy black sky; children of around three or four with swords at their belts whose mothers trotted along beside them, all tangled up in their drenched kimonos, trying to cover them with umbrellas blown inside-out in the gusts of wind; stoic, impassive old men on horseback with hundred-year-old stable-boys clutching the reins in both hands, when suddenly the animal bucked in the street in an effort to free itself, whinnying up at the storm, shrieking its rage at the inclement skies (too bad it’s raining, huh? I said, leaning over to Professor H.)
After lunch, coming back into the center of town under the persistent rain, I’d let myself fall back and was walking along dreamily beside my admirer. She’d prepared a whole list of questions for me, on my work and my methods, my tastes and how I spent my leisure time, and I felt more like I was giving an interview than engaging in tranquil conversation with a young woman after lunch. To this rather unpleasant impression of being grilled while still digesting my food was added the fact that my admirer remained icily cold in the face of my attempts to break up her interminable seriousness with a bit of humor (she didn’t laugh and never smiled), and, as I spoke, I had to face the obvious: she didn’t understand French, or just a little (and above all she pronounced it very badly, I had to strain enormously to understand even a word of what she was saying: she pronounced, for example, a word like “fear” as though it were “weeuhh!,” which caused me to raise a perplexed eyebrow while continuing to wonder what answer I might possibly give her). To attenuate the disagreeable picture these remarks might give of my admirer, I must admit she got things off to a very good start by telling me that my books had the same beneficial effect on her as Chinese medicine, in that, while never resorting to direct or invasive procedures, nevertheless brought her a strange sense of well-being. I’d been enchanted by this metaphor (a Chinese doctor, that’s what I was at heart), and I walked along beside her with an impetuous stride, my shoes light and carefree, avoiding with rollicking dexterity the numerous deer droppings scattered here and there in strands along the ground (you’ve got to watch out, Nara is full of deer), when I noticed, as we walked, that she was staring at me. I even had a fleeting feeling at the time that she was going to declare her love for me. You know, you’re not at all the way I imagined when I read your books, she avowed in a hushed voice. (What did I tell you?) Oh no? I asked, full of curiosity, suavely stroking a deer under its neck. No, no, she said, in fact I imagined you more small, more intelligent and more blue. More small and more blue! I said, digging in to the deer’s fur and twisting it discretely in my fingers to hide my nervousness. (Certain great successes can be founded on immense misunderstandings.) No, no, whiter, she meant more white (more pale, let’s say). I had heard wrong (she pronounced blanc like bleu, which of course might lead to some confusion). We started walking again, I took a disgruntled little kick at an old newspaper lying on the ground. You imagined me more intelligent? I asked in a conversational tone. Yes, she said. We kept walking along side by side. I turned and gave her a fixed look (no, she really didn’t speak very good French). We could go stroll ourselves along the river, she said (oh yes, why not, I said, if you like). Stroll ourselves along the river
When we returned, Professor H., having examined the sky and foretold more rain, proposed that rather than spending the afternoon viewing traditional Japanese art or visiting the Shin Yakushi-ji Temple or the Kasuga Taisha Shrine (we’d already seen Todai-ji that morning), we could take in a more popular although in his view equally instructive spectacle: the striptease. From that moment on he decided to do his best to get rid of the only young woman in our midst, my admirer, judging it better not to involve her in this venture because, even if he was willing to have us, his foreign guests, slum it with him (we were obviously his cover-story), he still retained some sense of decorum, gallant enough to wait until after the young woman’s departure, even hurrying it along somewhat, before leading us down his favorite dark alleyways. You have to go back to Kyoto now, Yoshiko, he said, looking at his watch with hypocritical concern. I’ll go with you if you like, said Charlie (strippers aren’t exactly my thing, he said, and they walked off arm in arm toward the station). The last little setback Professor H. had to deal with before satisfying his unavowable desires in Rémi’s and my name was our desire to do a bit of Christmas shopping beforehand. Then, our shopping done, just when he must have thought he’d almost reached his goal, we said we wanted to make a last detour to a shop we’d heard sold authentic handmade paper lanterns. Only then, having each acquired one of these expensive lanterns, our arms loaded with two large paper bags full of Christmas presents for our wives and children, costumes and brushes for our daughters, sandals and incense, trinkets and lacquers, we arrived at the entrance to the strip club. Having bought our tickets, we penetrated into the dubious dark of an old theatre smelling of urine and fermented soy and followed a corridor covered with obscene kanji and scrawled katakana where, here and there in the shadows, banged-up and abandoned vending machines displayed cans of Kirin and Sapporobeer. Professor H. couldn’t be restrained, and deserted us as soon as we got into the theatre. Professor, Professor! we yelled, reaching out to hold him back, but it was too late, he was gone. Rémi and I, clenching our bags full of Christmas presents, ventured into the dark labyrinth of corridors before going into the filthy bathrooms reeking equally of piss and miso, of shit and soup, the walls tacked with not particularly well-built Asian pin-ups astride huge Japanese motorbikes. Having stoically taken a piss, our noses pressed up against the exhaust pipes of these humungous bikes and doing our best not to breathe (nice place, by the looks of it), we too finally made our way into the striptease hall where, bathed in a shadowy reddish light, a stripper was just finishing her number on a stage surrounded by mirrors and curtains and lit up indirectly by the phallic beam of a dim red spot. We crossed the hall noiselessly and went over to join Professor H., who tilted his head over to us without taking his eyes off the stage and whispered to us to sit down on two seats that had remained free beside him. We set our bags of Christmas presents down beside us in the darkness, arranging them neatly on both sides of our chairs before looking up at the stage where a stark-naked stripper was spreading her legs on the floor and stuffing a little red ping-pong ball into her vagina before making it pop like a champagne cork, pop, which then fell softly back onto her stomach, whereupon she immediately stuffed it back inside her and started this intimate cup and ball game all over again. After these gymnastics, which only did credit to the suppleness of her anatomy (no matter how you looked at it, she was good at what she did, and we gave her a short round of mental applause), she came over to the edge of the stage and spread her legs wide right under the noses of the spectators in the front row, offering them little transparent plastic towels so they could wipe their fingers in case they were overcome by the urge to thrust them into her pussy and rummage around at their leisure for a while. That afternoon in the theatre it was an exceedingly eclectic group who took her up on this offer and started mucking around inside of her—there were young men and old, two well-dressed, elegant businessmen, three or four mean-looking yakuza with faces like syphilitic thugs who gave her a concentrated, attentive feel, and a pale and sickly fellow in a baseball cap and one of those white gauze masks meant to protect you from germs. Then as the stripper continued to look out benevolently at the audience with her legs spread at the edge of the stage, never losing her perpetual friendly smile like that of an Asian-American television hostess nor seeming to be at all aware that three guys were kneading her breasts and fingering her pussy with all the diligence of indiscriminate, narrow-minded, monotonous adolescents, she absently wiped the tips of their fingers again and moved slightly to one side to give the next spectators a glimpse of the depths of her soul, taking with her as she went the little pile of used transparent towels which seemed to me the most repugnant thing about this well-oiled ritual. Well, merry Christmas.