A Forest of Sheep and Steel

Natsu Miyashita

Bungeishunju, 2015 [no English translation available]


The Japanese Booksellers Award is one of the only prizes that I follow closely because both the short list and the winning book are chosen by bookstore staff, who nominate the books they enjoyed the most and recommend to others. This method seems to ensure the selection of books that offer readability and sheer enjoyment. 羊と鋼の森 (A Forest of Sheep and Steel) was no exception. Natsu Miyashita’s story of Tomura’s all-consuming ambition to become a piano tuner was beautifully written, with a languid pace that matched the story’s tone.

The novel starts with a refrain that runs throughout Tomura’s story:

He could smell the forest, the way it smells in the fall when night is near. The trees are swaying in the wind, and the leaves are rustling. That smell of the forest as night is closing in…

But Tomura is not anywhere near a forest—he is standing in his high school gymnasium, watching a piano tuner, Soichiro Itadori, work on the school piano. Age 17, Tomura (whose name is written as 外村, the characters for “outside” and “village”) is from a mountain village whose school does not go beyond junior high, so he had to leave home to attend high school. Lacking much ambition, he is simply biding time until he can graduate.

Hearing Itadori as he worked on the piano changed all that. Itadori, perhaps bemused by the spellbound boy, tells him that this piano produces beautiful sound because it comes from the mountains and fields–sheep ate the grass on the mountains and in the meadows, producing the wool that was made into felt for the hammers. Itadori demonstrates the way the hammer, encased in felt, hits the steel strings, and again Tomura hears the sound of the forest in early autumn, just as the light dims.

Although he’d never even been aware of the existence of pianos until then, Tomura cannot forget the sounds he has heard and seeks out Itadori to ask to be his apprentice. Instead, Itadori gives him the name of a school that trains piano tuners.

Tomura spends two years at a school on Honshu, with just seven students in his year. From the start, he is overwhelmed by the difficulty of his chosen profession. He feels as if he has braved the forest that he had always been warned against entering as a child, told that once he loses his way, he will never find his way out.

This picture of Kamishikimi Kumanoimaso Shrine in Takamori, Kumamoto Prefecture, is how I imagined the forest Tomura refers to.

This picture of Kamishikimi Kumanoimaso Shrine in Takamori, Kumamoto Prefecture, is how I imagined the forest Tomura refers to.

After graduating, Tomura gets a job at Itadori’s studio, but still believes that mastering the craft of piano tuning and achieving the sound Itadori is able to produce is beyond him. He stays late every night practicing tuning on the studio’s pianos. He also begins to listen to classical music for the first time, and falls asleep listening to Mozart or Beethoven or Chopin.

Much of the novel revolves around Tomura’s misgivings as to his own abilities and conversations with his colleagues debating the role of a piano tuner. This is not a book filled with dramatic plot twists. Welcome diversions from Tomura’s self-doubt, which can seem rather tortured after a while, come from the other piano tuners he works with, whose back stories we learn, and his friendship with twins Kazune and Yuni. These two gifted piano players and their different styles of performing are pivotal in helping Tomura find his own approach to piano tuning.

I admit I got a bit tired of the use of the forest as metaphor, but Miyashita’s descriptions of Tomura’s growing awareness of the beauty around him were lovely. When he has a free moment, Tomura opens the lid of the piano and gazes inside at the 88 piano keys and the strings attached to each one. The strings stretched out straight and the hammers lying ready to strike look like an orderly forest to him. He sees beauty here, something that had just been an intellectual concept to him before.

His eyes and ears were first opened by the piano, but now that his senses have been awakened, he dips back into his memory for more beauty:

For example, the milk tea his grandmother would make when he was home. Adding milk to the small saucepan in which she steeped the tea turned it the color of a muddy river after heavy rains. He could almost imagine fish lying hidden at the bottom of the pan in his hot tea. He would gaze, mesmerized, at the liquid swirling into his cup. Yes, that was beauty.

When Tomura goes home after his grandmother dies, he walks in the forest. He hears spruce needles falling to the ground, a sound with no corollary on the musical scale. And then it all came together:

I knew it all along! I get it. I felt like yelling out loud. I recognized that sound the spruce makes. Is that why [the sound of the piano] made me nostalgic? Is that why it drew me in? I had known the archetypal sound of the piano all along. The first instrument probably originated in the forest.

However, there were times when Tomura’s world was so far from the banal everyday tasks of washing clothes and cooking meals that it seemed too rarefied. This was exacerbated when, on the day I had set aside a few hours to write about this book, my refrigerator’s control panel gave out and the washing machine began leaking water onto the floor. As I cleared out the refrigerator and mopped up stagnant water, I have to admit that Tomura’s single-minded pursuit of the perfect pitch almost irritated me.

However, reading the comments on bookmeter, a Japanese site where readers record the books they’ve read and post comments and reviews (http://bookmeter.com/b/4163902945), I was struck by how many readers loved this book precisely because it took them away from their workday and daily stress. There might be no mention of cooking meals, paying bills or washing up in A Forest of Sheep and Steel, but we can always turn to Haruki Murakami for such quotidian details (his descriptions of bread-making and pasta were a high point of A Wild Sheep Chase for me). Miyashita’s novel serves another purpose, perhaps as a reminder that a protective layer of abstract thought or an all-aborbing interest just might prevent us from allowing our minds to become numbed by banalities. Whether that means that we are puzzling over the geometry of fractals, going over the steps of a perfect judo throw, or marveling at the intricacy of Schubert’s quintets as we scrub dishes and sit in traffic, surely we need more of it as a refuge against the mundane. So here’s hoping that we can all be a little bit more like Tomura.

*Although A Forest of Sheep and Steel has not been translated into English, The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: The Hidden World of a Paris Atelier by T.E. Carhart might be a good substitute. Here is a review by one of my favorite bloggers and also a standard newspaper review.