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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

A Room Where
the Star-Spangled Banner
Cannot Be Heard

Levy Hideo

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To purchase A Room Where the Star-Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard

Title: A Room Where the Star-Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard
Author: Levy Hideo
Genre: Novel
Written: 1992 (Eng. 2011)
Length: 117 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: A Room Where the Star-Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard - US
A Room Where the Star-Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard - UK
A Room Where the Star-Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard - Canada
A Room Where the Star-Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard - India
  • A Novel in Three Parts
  • Japanese title: 星条旗の聞こえない部屋
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Christopher D. Scott

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Our Assessment:

B : feels terribly autobiographical, but much of it quite fascinating

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Japan Times . 23/10/2011 David Cozy

  From the Reviews:
  • "The skill with which Levy ties these three sections together, and also with which, within each of the sections, he moves between Ben's memories and his present, makes it clear that, though this was Levy's first novel, he already had a firm grasp of the novelist's art. He also had the novelist's eye for the striking scenes the world throws up, particularly those that a border-crosser such as Ben, would notice." - David Cozy, The Japan Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The young man at the center of A Room Where the Star-Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard is Ben Isaac, and the novel describes his engagement with, and then immersion in the world of Japan. Ben comes with considerable baggage, his American parents having divorced and his father now remarried to a Chinese woman. After living with his mother in Virginia for several years Ben joins his father and his new family in Japan after graduating from high school, moving to Yokohama, where Ben's father works in the American consulate.
       Ben was born in 1950, and much of the action takes place in 1967. America is not particularly popular at the time, especially given the proximity of the Vietnam War. Ben isn't particularly political, but among the earlier times recalled is that around the Kennedy assassination. By 1967 Ben clearly chafes under the doubled-paternalism of father and state: living in his father's home, which is inside the American consulate, he longs to rebel -- yet does not do so in any more obvious political-protesting way, instead choosing an entirely personal escape, abandoning father, fatherland, and mother tongue.
       A Room Where the Star-Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard feels terribly autobiographical: Ben Isaac's background and life closely mirrors Ian Hideo Levy's, and many of the episodes seem to have been taken from Levy's own life. Fortunately, at least, Levy chose not to write in the first person, so that the book isn't full-fledged confessional (or typical Japanese 'I-novel').
       Isaac's family is one used to cross-cultural confusion: Ben's father was raised Orthodox Jewish, while his mother was a Polish Catholic girl from West Virginia. If Ben's father's Jewish family could just accept his marriage to a Catholic, they balked when he divorced and married a Chinese woman:

the Isaac clan saw this as an act of ethnic betrayal and cut ties with him completely. This too Ben learned from his mother. But he knew from personal experience that the sin of his father's transgression had been passed down to him.
       With his father working in the foreign service, Ben had been exposed to a variety of cultures in his childhood too. Like his father ("We're Confucian"), Ben is not defined by his Jewish roots ("I'm a Jew who doesn't dream of Israel"); unlike his Sinophile (and Chinese-speaking) father, however, the foreign culture that Ben is drawn to is the Japanese one.
       His father thinks Ben's ambitions are foolish:
     "No matter how much you learn to speak their language, in their eyes you'll always be like me: a dumb gaijin who can't speak properly and never wanted to. Even if you go the plaza in front of of the Imperial Palace and scream 'Long live the Emperor !' in perfect Japanese and slit your stomach open, you'll never be one of them."
       At university it is easy for Ben to still be the foreigner whom the English-students want to practice their English on, but he does make one friend, Andō, who shows no interest in speaking English and only speaks Japanese with him. Eventually, Ben chooses to immerse himself entirely into Japan -- an unusual leap that certainly raises eyebrows but that he is committed to.
       A Room Where the Star-Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard does describe how Ben goes native, and much of the background that pushes him in that direction, but it still feels relatively sketchy, with many of the reasons and family dynamics mentioned, but few explored in greater depth. Ben's journey is, however, such an unusual one, that even in this limited form the story is quite a compelling one. Intensely focused on Ben, with others' reactions described but little effort made to consider what is behind them, A Room Where the Star-Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard remains a very personal book, but does offer an interesting if essentially undigested presentation of a foreign culture and how it deals with this kind of foreign presence.
       The writing here is somewhat uneven, with some of the episodes too carefully constructed, and some of the sentences to sententious ("It sounded as if the Earth had been shot three times", he writes in concluding his description of Kennedy's Arlington funeral), but there's so much here that is unusual and enough of the story that is well-presented to make for a very intriguing read.
       The fact that this book was originally written in Japanese does make for a fascinating additional layer of cross-cultural commentary, as much of what Ben dealt with was trying to learn the language (both spoken and written) -- a journey that obviously also reads very differently in the original Japanese than the translated English; if nothing else, this book (the English version) should become a standard text in translation and theory classes.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 July 2011

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A Room Where the Star-Spangled Banner Cannot Be Heard: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Levy Hideo (リービ 英雄; actually Ian Hideo Levy) was born in the US in 1950 but has lived abroad much of his life.

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