Written by Ōsaka Gō — This is an unusual book by any standards. Written in 1986 by one of Japan’s most versatile authors it has been translated here into English for the first time. Osaka Go’s work sells consistently well in his home country, and this novel is about Japanese men with an unusual hobby – flamenco guitar music. The travel to Spain in 1975, the final year of Franco’s dictatorship, tasked with an implausible mission involving family betrayals, gem-studded guitars and international terrorists. At over 400 pages it’s fairly lengthy for a thriller, but it’s worth the time despite the concentration required to remember so many Japanese and Spanish names.
It ‘s the story of Urushida Ryō, a freelance PR man whose best client, Hino Musical Instruments, has an unusual assignment for him. He’s asked to locate a Japanese guitarist known only by the nickname Santos. He is being sought by a Spanish guitar craftsman Ramos, who has been invited by the company to Japan to share his secret techniques and collaborate in producing high quality, high price guitars. The real reason for Ramos’s need to speak to Santos is gradually revealed and Urushida becomes an uncomfortable partner in an international game of manipulation, dirty tricks and mud-slinging. Along the way, he also gets involved in a PR war with a rival instrument manufacturer and almost falls in love with a charming young woman working for the other side.
Things get even more complicated, because Ramos is accompanied to Japan by his granddaughter Flora, who has studied Japanese and who seems to have her own dangerous agenda. The multiple storylines converge and the action moves to Spain, where things get even more brutal and unpredictable. Urushida finds himself involved in mysterious deaths, ultra-left-wing bombmakers and secret police brutality. This second section, set in Spain, is where the story really comes to life. The action takes a while to get going in the first few chapters but becomes ever more urgent and compelling. At the same time, the book is a meditation on the nature of tyranny, political freedom, homeland security and anarchy – all themes that are still with us today.
The Japanese consume huge amounts of crime fiction and mystery novels, both home-grown and in translation. Many Japanese authors are keen to imitate Western writers, but in the process make the genre their own. Ōsaka Gō is no exception. This award-winning author of suspense thrillers is an obvious admirer of the hardboiled school of Raymond Chandler. You will find in his work the same fast-paced plots and surprises, a vast array of both likeable and unsavoury characters, and many self-deprecating jokes and smart quips from the main protagonist. The combination of humour – for instance, there’s the running gag about Urushida being abandoned by his supposed allies – and deadly serious action is not an easy one to pull off, but Ōsaka does it with aplomb.
Spain is the author’s first and enduring love, so it often finds its way into his work. The Spain that he describes is a country deeply divided, resentful of the dictatorship that followed a destructive Civil War, with a deeply suspicious and fearful population. Yet the author finds much to love in the music and culture of this country, and in the hospitality and inventiveness of its people. Ōsaka is equally clear-eyed and vocal as a critic of Japanese society in the 1970s, a country deliberately sitting on the fence, unwilling to take sides and ready to make a pact with any country, regardless of the political regime, to enhance its international trade.
If you are prepared to focus for the first few chapters and keep the numerous characters and storylines straight, this book will reward you with an exciting read, as well as a great insight into a piece of recent history that we have almost forgotten. The Red Star of Cadiz has been made available to English-speaking audiences through the work of Kurodahan Press, dedicated to making East Asian literature more accessible in the West.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars