While away on a business trip, Tsuneo Asai, a section chief in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, learns that his wife, Eiko, has died suddenly back in Tokyo. It transpires that Eiko suffered a fatal heart attack while walking up a hilly street in a part of the city that Asai is certain would have been unfamiliar to her.
Why was Eiko there in the first place? Apart from knowing no one there, Eiko had a weak heart and would have surely avoided walking up the rather steep hill.
When Asai pays a courtesy call to the woman who tried to help Eiko and in whose cosmetics store his wife died in, he notices a love hotel on the street and begins to question what he think he knows about his wife’s life, and what he’s been told about her death.
The rigid social rules that permeate all aspects of Japanese life act as the driving force behind this novel’s plot and the motivations of its characters, in particular Tsuneo Asai.
From the very start, it is established that this is a man to who is determined to advance in his job with the ministry despite not having the social and educational advantages of some of his colleagues. Thus, his actions at work are calculated to impress those who would have to the power to reward him more responsibility and recognition, and, in time, a promotion. Even on receiving news of Eiko’s death, Asai’s thoughts are on his job and how to leave without inconveniencing his boss. Throughout the novel, Asai is sensitive to social appearances and obligations. They are what dictate his decisions and actions, and, ultimately, they are his undoing.
Not many of Matsumoto’s novels have been translated into English and besides A Quiet Place, I have only been able to find one other, Inspector Imanishi Investigates. The latter is apparently a typical police procedural, and I’m looking forward to seeing what this means in the context of Japan. As for A Quiet Place, the police are largely not involved as there is nothing outwardly unusual or suspicious about Eiko’s death and all doubts are Asai’s own. Thus, it is he who conducts the investigation, at first on his own, and later, anxious to preserve his anonymity, with the help of a detective agency.
As the novel progresses Asai becomes more and more convinced that even if there no foul play was involved, Eiko’s death must have been, at very least, the result of impropriety. The theories at which he arrives are plausible enough, and he becomes somewhat obsessed with proving that they are correct.
The novel is paced slowly, with Asai’s thoughts and actions laid out in great detail, giving the reader a powerful sense of Asai’s point of view. I felt most keenly his outrage at realising that he had been married to a woman he did not really know and that he was largely to blame for his ignorance. Knowing what truly happened becomes a matter of honour for Asai and you can understand the urgency to achieve this. His methodical pursuit of the truth and analysis of the facts as they present themselves further crank up the suspense level as theories of Eiko’s secret life slowly take shape and you wonder if any of it can be proved. Ignorance is bliss, not knowing hurts only when you know you don’t know, but it’s that little bit of knowledge leading you a dance as your imagination goes into overdrive that destroys your soul.
I read the last few chapters with dread as Asai hurtles towards an inevitable doom of his own making. It’s as ridiculous as it is unavoidable and makes for a strangely gloomy yet satisfying conclusion.