In search of the ultimate haiku

Kudo Yamamoto, the main character of Bart Koubaa’s second novel Air, drags an eventful past with him. At fifteen years of age he followed his father to the usa. He worked his way up to become a translator for the FBI, but in 1945 made a vital mistake: in hesitating over the imperial idiom, he missed the unconditional capitulation of the Japanese emperor, which resulted in the usa dropping a bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the resulting destruction, his daughter - of whose existence he knew nothing - also died. Could he have prevented this? Why did he remain silent? Yamamoto resolves to represent the entire cosmos in seventeen syllables - in a haiku thus. He has returned to his parental home in Japan, and wishes to pose, at the request of a female photographer, in front of seventeen shelves with Western books. The story of measuring, elaborating and placing the bookshelves is a metaphor for ordering his cultural evolution and his life experience, as a preparation for the generation of the ultimate haiku.

Bart Koubaa brings the life story of an ordinary man, Kudo - which spans a great deal of the twentieth century - into direct connection with historical events and developments. Kudo contrasts Eastern and Western philosophies of life; the glorious, emotion-packed tradition has values that cannot be compared to those of materialistic progress. His experience of life guides him toward an increasingly ascetic view of life, and after ‘air’ has been dealt with in all its manifestations - wind, breath, oxygen, void - Kudo’s already disengaged existence ultimately dissolves into futility.

Air is a melancholy story with a vague undertone of a tragic, long history. Rich in light-footed images and symbols, the novel is saturated with ideas on the great coherence and meaning of life, and the resigned acceptance of the all-embracing advance of life as mirrored in nature. Or, as Kudo says in his haiku: Did he see a flower Return to its branch? It was a butterfly.

Air is an original novel, by an ambitious author who made his name with his novel Fire. It looks like we’ll have to wait for ‘Earth’ and ‘Water’.

Vrij Nederland

You will finish Air in an hour, but you will immediately feel the need to reread it and think up creative interpretations for the metaphors, for that is where its internal logic lies.

De Standaard


Lucht (2005). Fiction, 124 pages.



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