A Tradition of Building Walls

Leonid Lopez

HAVANA TIMES — Nakamura would come see me at the bar once a week. He’s the kind of person that people can only describe as “normal” or “down-to-earth” when you ask about them. He’d put a lot of effort into becoming that kind of person.

His father belonged to a lineage of ruined samurais. After years of unrelenting work, he had managed to found a small printing ink company. He considered himself living proof that working hard can take you far. It was the only maxim he stuck to, and he wielded it as confidently as a judge wields his mallet.

As a small child, Nakamura saw his father as an enormous wall that protected him from the outside world. He didn’t have a very clear picture of that outside world, but he assumed it was a place where bad people lived, where people didn’t work hard and wanted to live off others. As he grew up – as the years went by – the outlines of this picture became more and more blurry.

It’s not that he questioned whether his father’s doctrine was good or not. He simply began to ask himself which side to take. Most of all, he would wonder why a life guided by a concept of the good had to be so somber. The wall didn’t feel as strong anymore. Were the bricks crumbling with age?

Perhaps the mix used to hold the bricks together was of poor quality? Or, worse still: could it be that his father wasn’t the enormous wall he thought he was, but, rather, one of the many small, mold-covered walls one finds in the city’s old, dark alleyways?

Whatever the case was, Nakamura realized that his father had no friends. He once told me that the only thing his father had been doing for recreation, for something like three years, was to play go with a bonze at a Shintoist sanctuary near the house. Sitting on the mat-covered floor of an empty room that had once been used for wedding ceremonies, without saying a single word to one another, the two would whisper prayers and curses as they played.

Nakamura’s mother had died when he was only 12. His father’s reaction had been to plunge deeper into work and to remind his son, every day, of the immense sacrifices his family had made, that it was his responsibility to take over his business as soon as he was old enough to do so.

Somehow, Nakamura was aware of what was expected of him. He stopped playing with the girl from across the street and the mixed-race weirdo from downstairs. Instead, he began to play baseball with the tough crowd in his classroom. He learned each lesson like a psalm in a religious pamphlet. He would put aside every bit of knowledge that seemed strange or impractical to him, would not cry or speak more than was required. He would never express his true feelings.

Thus would he finally ward off the doubts he’d been having, cure himself of uncertainty. Thus would he become Nakamura – his father’s surname, his shadow.

He grew up, or, rather, let himself grow. Brick by brick and without meeting with any real resistance – he didn’t know how, exactly – his father must have made him into another wall. Now, however, he felt his father hadn’t worked alone in this.

The school, the neighbors, the television, nothing around him offered him any other ideal to aspire to in his life. Simply two options were placed before him, again: the life of the hardworking man, or the life of the leech.

At 20, when he was almost old enough to take over his father’s business, Nakamura could only think the following: either the world hasn’t matured or it is I who still has the mind of a child. At 30, he left home. His father had stopped playing go.

Another thought came to him when he was 35: could it be everything around me is designed to keep me thinking like a child? The ads, the television programs, the excessive amount of information blurted out by loudspeakers at train and bus stations, an increasingly long list of things had become telling evidence, for him, that Japan worked to cultivate a population of children without solid criteria about anything, who would repeat proverbs about the right way to live like parrots.

“If it turned out I was the only misfit, the only leaning wall, I would have to shut my mouth and come to peace with the fact I am swimming against the current.” This is what Nakamura told me one day, having had one too many, looking at the tip of his pointed businessman shoes.

Then, leaning stealthily closer to me, lowering his voice and casting a sideway glance at the television hung up on the wall, he invited me to look at the drowsy faces of those around me, challenging me to find one person who asked anything even remotely outside the realm of everyday chit-chat, who recommended a different kind of life, asking me to tell him the number of times I had heard someone laugh, talk out loud, eat – and a long list of other things – in public.

Nakamura had inherited his father’s business and gotten married. Around the house, his wife would wear an apron the day through. When she went out, she would cover her arms with a kind of stocking to protect her skin from the sun. She would always cook Japanese food. The only leisurely thing she did was to go to some well-known restaurant with the wives of other businessmen from the neighborhood. There, she would talk and laugh almost wildly, always hiding her mouth with her hand.

In Nakamura’s presence, however, she was very quiet and discrete. The word he would hear her say most often was dame (“forbidden”, something which shouldn’t be done), when she scolded their children. Their two kids seemed to understand that they lived in a world of forbidden things and adapted to it marvelously, doing nothing that was unruly.

Nakamura would come see me at the bar once a week. He would treat me to a glass of the finest wine in the house. I never said much to him. I would limit myself to listening, nodding and interjecting some superficial comment or other. It seemed this is what he needed from me.

One day, I dared say to him that it was clear he wasn’t like his father. That more than one wall had fallen down around him and, though life often demands that we quickly build new walls in their place, one could give these new walls softer edges, point them towards the sun, paint them a color we liked.

Nakamura listened to my words, pensively. He never returned to the bar.