Book Review: Byobu


Byobu, by Ida Vitale (translated by Sean Manning) is structured as a series of short vignettes that take the reader inside the head of the eponymous protagonist. The episodes recounted are often playful but also poignant, offering insights into how Byobu sees himself and the effects he has on others. He lives alone but is not a loner, aware that his inability to recount amusing anecdotes can lead to boredom in any audience he secures. He prefers his days to be predictable, following habits, even when he recognises they do not make best use of his time.

The book opens with a musing on what makes a story and how, when told, they will roam free, ‘like a lightening bolt no lightening rod has grounded’. The reader is then offered a description of a typical day in Byobu’s life, how he makes choices yet often gets sidetracked, time passing due to his ‘habitual indecisiveness’. We learn that he ‘loves the sun’ yet seeks shade when it shines. He claims to be continually seeking ‘how to be more’.

Thus the reader gains an image of Byobu’s character. From here we are taken through some minor events that he has experienced and what he thought as they were happening. They mine the mostly everyday but demonstrate how thoughts are wont to wander.

“Often, distracted by some minutia captivating him at a particular moment, he misses fragments of conversations that later turn out to be important.”

Most of the short chapters are easily understood, relatable or likely metaphors. Some, however, are more opaque. I remain unsure what the author wished to convey in The Race.

One chapter relates the fate of Byobu’s generational home, which he valued highly. When potential structural faults started to cause anxiety, his life became intolerable. He found it easier to accept loss and move on than live with the gnawing unknown.

I enjoyed the anecdote about the wife who, realising her husband didn’t listen when she spoke, came up with an entertaining means of regaining his attention, of trapping him in his rudeness, thereby forcing him to admit he was in the wrong.

Another chapter detailed Byobu’s discomfort when he found himself on a bus amidst a gathering of deaf people who were chattering away happily with their hands. It offered a powerful reminder of how the deaf may feel if alone amongst the hearing.

There are thoughts on: resistance, rebelliousness, order to be found in personal actions, boring others and being bored.

The final chapter muses on what are, or perhaps are not, original thoughts. I was particularly taken by one of these short summaries.

“Poetry seeks to extract from its abyss certain words that might constitute scar tissue we are all unconsciously chasing.”

There is much within these pages to ponder, yet each chapter deals lightly with what are deeper concerns. That the author has drawn them together in such an entertaining way is impressive. An engaging but also lingering read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Charco Press.