E-mail Interview on Novel Applause, vol. 1

2020.07.08
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Harada Maha posted her new novel Applause in installments over 18 consecutive days on her official Twitter account and official Instagram account “Maha’s Gallery.” On April 16, I conducted an email interview with Maha about this work, which has just been released in full on “Maha’s Gallery.”

——What made you decide to serialize your new novel, Applause, over 18 consecutive days on social media? I was able to see the first-person narrator as you, Maha, and it had the feel of an autobiographical novel, but can you talk about why you put it in the form of a novel, rather than simply sharing your thoughts via tweets and so forth?
 
I’m partially based in Paris, and I regularly travel back and forth between Paris Tokyo. Every time I go, I see such wonderful exhibitions and gather so much material for my work. That is why for the past five or six years I’ve been writing a lot of art-related novels set in Paris.

The last time I went, too, the biggest Leonardo da Vinci exhibition ever was happening at the Louvre to mark the 500th anniversary of his death, and I arrived in Paris just in time on February 24, the last day of the show. There were enormous crowds and an incredible level of enthusiasm, and looking back on it now, it was a perfect example of the “3 Cs” (closed spaces, crowds, close contact) we’re supposed to avoid these days. As I viewed the exhibition, I was literally cheek to jowl with crowds of French and Italian people, but strangely I was the only Asian around. By that time COVID-19 was rampant in China, and in Japan too, there was a mass outbreak on a luxury cruise ship and concern was mounting. But in Paris there had been no infections yet, and the pandemic was just a news headline about a distant country. If I had predicted the city would be on lockdown three weeks later, people would have thought me insane. But at the time, I did find it eerie that there were no other Asians at the da Vinci show. When I thought about how many Asian tourists usually flooded the streets of Paris, seeing them all suddenly disappear seemed really uncanny.

Soon afterward, the number of infections began growing in Italy, and by the first week of March, the coronavirus was in the news every day in France as well. I had a premonition that the museum would be closing before long, so on the last day of February I went to Louvre, as if something was summoning me, to see the oldest thing in the museum’s collection, a piece of Mesopotamian pottery that I first came across 10 years ago. I took a picture and posted it on Instagram. And what do you know, the very next day the Louvre closed its doors. I started to grasp how serious the situation was.

As it happened, two weeks later a full lockdown took effect, and by chance I found myself both a part of a historic event and a witness to it. I wrote, in Guernica Undercover and Tableau of the Beautiful and Foolish, about another historic moment here, when Nazi Germany invaded France and occupied Paris in 1940. When I realized I was witnessing kind of a comparable moment, I wanted to document it however I could, and I decided to write a novel in real time. I thought about posting comments on Twitter, too, but social media is something that has an immediate impact but then quickly disappears. People aren’t supposed to spend a long time reading one thing, and that’s the big difference between social media and novels. I wanted to capture the reality in front of me, as a writer and as a witness to history.

——Right now, people all over the world are re-reading The Plague by Camus, and that’s a perfect example of the kind of staying power I’m talking about. I want to share this moment with my readers now, and at the same time I want to preserve it for people in a future, post-COVID era. That was the biggest motivation for me to start writing Applause.


Right up until the final episode, I never stopped wondering about and anticipating what was coming next. I think many of your readers were very worried about you in Paris during the lockdown.


I limited the number of days of serialization to 18, for reasons I stated in an introductory text I posted on March 29, the day before I began posting episodes.
On March 29, the official number of infected individuals in Japan was 1,827. In France it was 37,575. Eighteen days earlier, the number in France had been 1,784 people. In other words, as of that day, the number of infected people in Japan was almost the same as it had been in France 18 days earlier (on March 11). In France, on March 11, no one could imagine that a lockdown was in coming. So I wanted to sound an alarm because I felt like in Japan, if urgent steps weren’t taken, the situation after 18 days might look a lot like France.

On March 29, when I decided to write Applause, reports came out of the death of Shimura Ken, who had been scheduled to star in the film adaptation of my book The God of Cinema, and that was the day I finally decided to return to Japan. To be honest, I had no idea what my situation would be in 18 days. Would I really be able to return to Japan? What would happen if I arrived back there and tested positive? I had heard news about the terrible, prejudiced way some people were treating returnees. I was anxious and frightened. Nonetheless, I hung on to strands of hope, and I channeled my hopes into this 18-day serialized project. My hope was that during these 18 days Japan would take the right kind of steps to curtail the pandemic, and people would all understand the horror of the virus and cooperate to contain it.

It was hard to imagine that we would be able to contain it immediately, but I believed it was possible we had caught on to the gravity of the situation just in time. Indeed, I felt the majority of Japanese people understood what they needed to do in this critical situation, and were coming together in solidarity. I heard that almost everyone on the city streets was wearing a mask, and many people were reducing their interpersonal contact by 70% or 80%.

And 18 days after March 29, on April 17, the number of infected people in Japan was reported as 9,220. That was five times the number 18 days earlier––higher, to be sure, but still incredibly low compared to France. In France, the number increased by a factor of 21 over the 18 days after March 11.

I am not sure what accounts for this disparity, but there are many differences between Japanese and Westerners, such as Japanese people’s mentality, serious nature, and long-standing recognition of etiquette regarding public hygiene. I wrote about that on Day 17: “Keeping your mouth closed in public. That’s a strong point of the Japanese right now.” Not speaking out in public means you do not spray saliva while facing someone else. That’s not the case in Western countries, where it’s considered good to speak loud and clear when communicating and say what you really think. People have often asked why, by comparison, Japanese people do not express themselves, are so quiet and self-effacing. Why don’t they say what they want to say? And under normal circumstances, you could certainly make a case for that being Japanese people’s weakness. But in a pandemic like this one, I realized, it ends up being a strength.

Re-examining differences between Japan and the West in terms of culture and customs, I’m newly aware of Japanese people’s strong sense of keeping up a public front, what constitutes proper public behavior, and of the culture of shame. This sort of mentality is considerably more pronounced than it is in the West. It’s just my personal opinion, but this seems to give Japanese an advantage in this pandemic.

A lot of my readers have been quite worried and asked whether I’ll be able to come back from Paris. Because I was writing in the form of a novel, I couldn’t give away the ending, so to speak, by revealing that I was back in Japan, and I felt awful about that. On the other hand, I was extremely happy to get so much support and encouragement in real time.

(Continues in “E-mail Interview on Novel Applause, vol. 2”)

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