The Invisible Japanese Gentlemen by Graham Greene, 1966
The magic trick:
Setting up a fairly cruel comedy at the expense of a young author talking about her career but in fact making it a story that judges its own narrator just as harshly
This is a pretty vicious takedown of a young author. She is proud without justification. She is oblivious to her faults. She is absorbed with her own life. She has no clue what pitfalls await her in a career as a novelist. She is probably just a product of a lecherous publishing industry that caters to a pretty face.
The tone is not mean, though, despite that list of attacks. How so?
Well, the narrator and the aforementioned young author are separated in a restaurant by a table of Japanese gentlemen. So as dinner progresses, he observes the author and overhears her conversation. And, crucially, the narrator is the vehicle of those judgments listed above. He can’t believe how naïve and obnoxious she is. The final nail in the coffin comes with the funny irony in the closing line in which the author, who has bragged all night about being recognized for her observational skills, fails to realize that there were ever any Japanese men sitting near them.
So that’s it. Maybe it really is just a goof on the publishing business and the folly of young writers. I don’t think so though. I’m gonna give GG more credit than that. I think the narrator is the butt of the joke as much as the young author. The narrator writes off the Japanese gentlemen as talking in what he calls “their incomprehensible tongue.” The narrator is staring right through them, listening to the young author’s conversation. The narrator is just as guilty as she is of completely ignoring their existence.
And, remember, the narrator is the originator of all of those judgments. So suddenly we have someone who isn’t particularly reliable at all telling us this story. What makes him so smart, so great, so objective? Nothing.
Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s just how I read it. I like that reading. The story is not mean. It is judgmental. But it’s judging the narrator just as much as it judges the woman. And that’s quite a trick on Greene’s part.
Her companion appeared a little distraught. He refilled their glasses with Chablis and said, ‘Of course, but mother . . I missed some of the conversation then, because the eldest Japanese gentleman leant across the table, with a smile and a little bow, and uttered a whole paragraph like the mutter from an aviary, while everyone bent towards him and smiled and listened, and I couldn’t help attending to him myself.
The girl’s fiancé resembled her physically. I could see them as two miniatures hanging side by side on white wood panels. He should have been a young officer in Nelson’s navy in the days when a certain weakness and sensitivity was no bar to promotion.
She said. ‘They are giving me an advance of five hundred pounds, and they’ve sold the paper- back rights already.’ The hard commercial declaration came as a shock to me; it was a shock, too, that she was one of my own profession. She couldn’t have been more than twenty. She deserved better of life.
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