“The Invisible Japanese Gentlemen” first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in November 1965. The piece was later published in the volume of short stories May We Borrow Your Husband? in March 1967. The volume is subtitled “And Other Comedies of the Sexual Life,” and indeed the collection of stories is signifcantly lighter in tone than much of Graham Greene’s work. There is a distinct sense of amusement prevalent throughout the volume, and while the authorial focus is still unreservedly on human relationships, the seriousness with which Greene had previously approached such issues is conspicuous by its absence.
“The Invisible Japanese Gentlemen” is set in a fashionable London restaurant and is primarily a studied piece of observation rather than of action. Greene’s examination of the processes of recognition and alienation, of the way people interact, observe one another, and coexist, raises a number of fundamental questions regarding the relationship of the individual to the world as a whole.
The plot is simple, taking place within a few brief minutes and confined to three tables in the corner of the restaurant. The characters remain seated, stationary throughout the body of the text, and the only movement in the piece is that of the narrator’s gaze as he surveys the room. Communication is virtually nonexistent as, although the girl and her fiancé talk profusely, they rarely connect. Their conversation is broken, a series of unfinished questions and statements, unformulated responses and throwaway, irrelevant comments. Her speech constantly intersects his as she strives to make herself heard, lamenting, “Darling, you don’t listen, do you?” They are continually talking at cross-purposes, and it is as if two separate conversations are taking place. Their effort to converse becomes a battle of words in which both speak but neither listen, and the connection is lost irrevocably.
The girl herself is particularly isolated, surrounded by words that mean nothing to her. Even the titles she chooses for her books are rejected and replaced with somebody else’s misinterpretations. The softness of the title “The Ever-Rolling Stream” sits in stark contrast to the publisher’s choice, “The Chelsea Set.” Even her fiancé cannot feel an affinity for her artistic sensibility. His response to “The Azure Blue” reveals their interplay to be more of a process of alienation than a lovers’ discourse.
The Japanese gentlemen of the title are indeed invisible to their fellow diners. Their conversation cuts across the various other dialogues, momentarily distracting the narrator from his observations. Physically situated directly between the couple and the narrator, their language, their “incomprehensible tongue,” quite literally forces a distance between the main characters. Yet despite their violent intrusion into the dialogue they remain unnoticed, “invisible” to the girl. Absorbed in her own attempts to dominate the speech she is unable to recognize the very existence of others.
Greene’s story functions as a cutting critique of the way in which language can isolate rather than connect, and it exposes the tenuous links that bind human to human and individual to individual.
Greene, Graham. Collected Stories: 21 Stories. London: Penguin, 1993.