Japanese Book Review: The Tropics by Morimi Tomihiko

(熱帯 森見 登美彦)

I don’t normally write in-depth summaries of the books I read, but this one had an intricate enough plot that I wanted to do it for myself, and hopefully, someone else will come across this and find it helpful. This book has the most complicated plot I have read. Early on, we learn that one of the characters carries around a notebook to keep track everything that happens, a lesson he learned after his copy of The Tropics, a mysterious book that no one has ever finished, disappeared.

I took this as a hint and began writing down what happened as I read. If you plan to read this book I would suggest doing the same, or to save time, you can use my summary as a map.

Obviously, this includes spoilers, so if you plan on reading the book come back when you’re finished. Here goes:

Summary of The Tropics:

The novel begins with Morimi himself, settling into a routine at home with his wife in Nara, and finding himself stricken with writer’s block. He travels to Kyoto and meets with his editor at Luncheon, a beer garden in Jimbocho, an area of Tokyo home to hundreds of used bookstores and the headquarters for all the major publishers—I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t heard of Jimbocho before this and now can’t wait to go there.

Morimi remembers finding The Tropics in a 100 Yen bin outside of a used book store during his college days. He has been thinking about the book and wondering if he could get a copy to finish it. His editor had never heard of it or its author Sayama Shoichi.

After meeting with his editor Morimi meets a friend with plans to attend the Silent Book Club, where everyone must bring a book with a mystery to talk about. The only rule is that you can’t solve someone else’s mystery. Morimi’s friend brings Kida Junichiro’s “Story of Mystery”. Morimi brings 1001 Nights.

At the book club Morimi meets a young lady. It turns out the book she brought to the book club is The Tropics. She is uncomfortable with Morimi’s intense interest in borrowing the book. Shiraishi begins to tell about the book.

Shirahashi is working at a model train shop belonging to her uncle after losing her job. A man carrying a notebook comes in the store twice a week. When they finally talk about the notebook he reveals that he had carried it ever since he read a book called The Tropics that he found in a hotel book exchange. It disappeared before he could finish it, and he couldn’t remember the details. Now he writes down everything.

It turns out that Shiraishi has read the same book. She found it at a mobile pop-up book selling kiosk called Arabia, she also wasn’t able to finish it. Takeuchi tells her that there is a club that meets where people discuss the mysterious book and invites her to join. Shiraishi joins the club and meets an older lady named Chiyo, as well as Nakatsu and Shinzo.

The club is working to “salvage” the story of The Tropics from their memories. Shiraishi soon learns that it is competitive. Chiyo invites Shiraishi to her house and reveals that she new Sayama as a college student. He was a language student who came to work for her father, Eizo, translating the handwritten Arabic text of a copy of 1001 Nights. After that meeting, Chiyo disappears. Shirayama thinks she sees her ghost.

Later, Shiraishi is attacked by Shinzo in Jimbocho. Shinzo says she is the Full Moon Witch. Nakatsu comes to save her, but he lures her into a secret office filled with books. A plant ends up eating him and Shiraishi appears back on the street (yeah, it’s getting strange).

Meanwhile, Takeuchi goes to Kyoto to chase the disappeared Chiyo, because she sent him a postcard that says, “I have the only real copy of The Tropics,” as a clue. Takeuchi doesn’t come back, but Shiraishi receives his notebook in the mail. The story shifts to the contents of Takeuchi’s notebook.

Wandering around trying to figure out how to find Chiyo, Takeuchi runs into the Arabia pop-up book kiosk and buys a copy of 1001 Nights. Chiyo had been to the kiosk eariler, and the owner points him to a shop called Horendo. At the store, the owner tells Takeuchi that Chiyo was with an old man, but had left out the back door leaving the man. She had told the store owner that she was looking for the Full Moon Witch. Takeuchi finds a card box in the store. He reads one of the cards and it has a poem. Takeuchi follows her footsteps out the back door and notices a sunflower blooming in February.

Takeuchi goes to Shijo and Pontocho and sees a bar called Night Wing. He realizes it is a reference to one of the lines in the poem he read on the card from the card box. He goes in and there is only one other customer, Maki. She says her grandfather, who was an artist, named the bar after the poem, which is from 1001 Nights. She tells a story about her grandfather’s art studio, which has a secret shed. Inside the shed is a library that is full of copys of 1001 Nights and books referencing the same. Before Takeuchi leaves, she tells him to visit the Kyoto Art Museum.

When he visits the museum, Takeuchi finds a picture of the Full Moon Witch and a palace in the desert. He gets sucked into the painting. He can hear Shiraishi’s voice but can’t see her. A storm comes.

After he finds himself outside of the painting Takeuchi calls Shiraishi to make sure she’s not really in the painting. She knows nothing about it.

Takeuchi meets Imanishi at Shinshindo, where the Silent Book Club used to be held. Imanishi is Chiyo’s friend from college, the one who was left behind at Horendo. They both knew Sayama and were part of the club.

Imanishi tells Takeuchi about one time in college when he tries to help Chiyo find a book for the book club and they are caught sneaking into Chiyo’s father, Eizo’s, study, which has a room within a room. They see the card box. Imanishi reads one of the cards. The perspective switches to Eizo’s story about what is in the box.

When Eizo is in Manchuria after the war is lost, he is going back to the village where his wife and son live. Everything is in chaos and he is running from Russian soldiers.

A man named Hasegawa helps him hide. On the way he shows him a floating, glowing moon, and tells him it was the Full Moon Witch. Eizo says the witch is in the box.

Back to Takeuchi, he realizes that the box he saw at Horendo is the same, so they decide to go back. They go through the Setsubun Matsuri on their way, which is the same festival where Sayama had disappeared while they were in college over 30 years ago.

They run into the Arabia Kiosk. Imanishi buys a K. C. Chesterfield book. They realize that Chiyo is trying to leave chaos in her wake so they will follow her. When they get to Horendo the owner is out, so they wait in the cold with canned vending machine coffees. When she gets back they look at the cards and realize they have Takeuchi’s actions since he came to Kyoto written on them, even though they are very old looking. They realize they are inside The Tropics and decide to follow the last card, which leads them to Maki’s grandfather’s secret library.

The go to the train station near the art studio and find Maki there waiting for them. They realize that Chiyo went into the strange library and disappeared. Takeuchi plans to do the same thing. They learn that the books in the library are Eizo’s books.

Takeuchi goes into the secret library alone and reads the end to 1001 Nights. He realize that the book itself appears in the book, so it is a recursive story. He stares at blank pages in his notebook and finds himself on the beach looking at a young man who is lost.

Now the story splits to the young man’s perspective, I’ll call him the narrator. He doesn’t know who he is. He walks along the beach and sees a train out in the ocean, just as the sun is rising. He then finds a hut and a pier. He looks through some binoculars and sees someone on a small island off the shore with a coke machine. The man on the island rows back to meet the narrator. He turns out to be Sayama.

Sayama takes him up through the woods to the observatory. Sayama makes it clear that he’s in charge and demands loyalty as the have crackers and drink whiskey. Sayama has a map of the archipelago where they are located, but the only visible island, at this time, is the observatory island. Sayama lives in the observatory, and the narrator will stay in an upstairs room.

One night the narrator hears a roar outside, so he goes downstairs to see what it was. He sees a tiger through the large glass window and realizes it must be Sayama.

The next day they go to visit the island with the coke machine. After a refreshing beverage Sayama says that the narrator is the key. He tells him he is part of the Scholars who are searching the archipelago for the Magic King, who has the power of creation. The Magic King’s weak point is his daughter. Then a bridge, just slightly underwater, appears. It leads to a small island with a canon.

They follow the bridge to the island and swim around it in the crashing waves until they find a way up. They see a prisoner with a long beard on the way up. The canons make the narrator realize there is a long history of fighting between the Scholars and the Magic King. The narrator starts to question whether he should really be on Sayama’s side.

At the top, the Narrator gets separated from Sayama. He finds him in the watchman’s hut. He has tied up Imanishi, the Head Librarian. They let out the prisoner and prepare to kidnap the Magic Kings daughter, who they know will come read the banned books in the watchman hut’s library.

She shows up on the ropeway, and Sayama tries to abduct her with a gun. It turns out she has a gun hidden in the copy of 1001 Nights, so she shoots him through the head and kills him. The prisoner runs away in the chaos.

The daughter will now take the Narrator to the Magic King on the ropeway. They get into the small ropeway cage and zoom over the ocean until they begin to see lots of islands that look like bits and pieces of established cities.

They make it to the palace, designed similarly to the observatory, and the daughter waits for the narrator as he goes up to talk to the Magic King.

The Magic King talks with the narrator following along with cards in his box. The narrator begins to tell him a lie to see what would happen. He gets mad and magically banishes him to a small deserted island. He tells him that nothing is the beginning of everything and leaves him there alone.

He finds a sail and an old beat-up Daruma doll, who becomes his companion. The Daruma tells him he should name the island so he calls it Nautilus. He sleeps one night, and when he wakes he determines he is too hungry and thirsty to swim to islands he can see in the distance.

He finds a stone arm of Sayama, then a violent storm comes. He takes shelter under a rock and finds a rusted switch. He uses the arm as a lever to flip the switch and the Nautilus turns into a ship.

He rides the ship until he comes to an island with a shipwreck that looks like someone is living in it. He forages for food, then an old man with a saber stops him. The old man makes him go diving for salvage—he wouldn’t give up his daruma friend—to pay him back. The narrator is very skilled at diving for salvage. He finds the rest of Sayama under the water along with a lot of other stone people.

A man and his young daughter Natsume come in a boat buy some salvage. The man says they are from a shop called Horendo. The narrator remembers having a dream where it was snowing and he was browsing through a shop called Horendo with the Magic King’s daughter. The narrator asks the shop owner for a ride off the island. The old man, Sinbad, disagrees and won’t let him go. Natsume convinces the shop keeper to take him at the last minute and the narrator jumps into the sea and escapes Sinbad.

They ride in the boat to a shopping district, Horendo is on its own island with a bridge connected to the shopping district. Chiyo, the Magic King’s daughter is there watching the shop when the arrive, and she also remembers the snow. She tells the narrator to make an island. He makes a coffee shop, but the people inside are stone. He’s not powerful enough to create real people, but he does have the magic of creation. Chiyo says he can make everyone on the archipelago real.

The narrator has a peaceful night telling stories to Natsume. After she goes to sleep he and the owner sit outside and see an island with outdoor bars, like those over the Kamo river, sink into the sea. Islands come and go around here.

The narrator has a dream that night where he meets the Magic King, who tells him that the scholars have it wrong and the power of creation is not in the box. The box is in the real world, so they can never get it from inside.

In the morning Sinbad, no longer a lonely old man but a fearsome pirate with a stunning ship and full crew, shows up. His ship is called the Nautilus. The narrator hides with Natsume as the owner goes to confront them. They are trapped, but the pirates flee when the shopping district starts to sink. After it sinks and the bridge collapses Horendo is in the sea all by itself.

Chiyo comes later in the morning to take the narrator to the museum island, where they will look at a painting of the Full Moon Witch. There is a rumor that anyone who sees her will be turned to stone, but Chiyo doesn’t believe it because how would anyone be able to spread that news if they had been turned to stone?

They get to the museum and go into the room where the painting is. They are underwhelmed with the quality of the painting and they can’t see the witch’s face, but they can tell that she is on an island with a desert and a palace with a domed roof. They notice that they can see the shape of a 大 in the distance—part of the Gozan islands.

They begin to head to the Gozan islands, but the pirates come after them. They are captured and separated. The narrator is thrown into a cell with Imanishi. Captain Sinbad and the fugitive scholar with the beard come into the cell, and the captain begins telling a story from long ago.

He tells of a time when he was also named Nemo. He is washed ashore with no memory on Candle Island. He tries to escape several times from the archipelago, but can only see darkness beyond. Violent storms keep him from making it to the edge.

Eventually, he becomes discouraged and becomes a pirate. He thinks he is the only thing in the archipelago outside of the Magic King’s control. He has the power of creation. He tries to fight the Magic King, but none of his crew are willing to cooperate, so he kills them all.

He meets the Magic King, who turns the Nautilus into a small island. Stranded Sinbad is eventually rescued and starts life on a small northern island making a living with salvage. However, after meeting Nemo, who told him about a memory of snow, he remembers that he also came from the outside world. He is thankful to Nemo that he had restored him. But not thankful enough not to kill him if he won’t help him fight the Magic King.

The Scholar with the beard removes his beard mask and it is Sayama. The narrator learns that all of the Scholars are Sayama and they keep coming one after the other.

To defeat the Magic King, they head out to find the Full Moon Witch, since she taught the Magic King the power of creation. When they get to Gozan, where she should be, they do not see the island with the desert and palace. Sinbad tells Nemo to create it, but he is unable. Sinbad goes ahead and does it himself and the disembark onto the island.

The palace is at the center of a basin wasteland surrounded by statues. All of the thousands of statues are Sayama. They look for the Full Moon Witch and find a hole with stairs. They go deep into the hole and realize the walls at the bottom are made of Sayama statues. Sayama is the foundation of the archipelago and actually makes up everything within it.

Sayama tells them the Full Moon Witch doesn’t exist then turns into stone and the ground turns into a muddy whirlpool. The whole island sinks into the sea. Only the narrator, Chiyo, Imanishi, and Sinbad escape to the top of the pile of rubble that remains above the water. Sinbad explains to the narrator that he is the same person as the Narrator and they are trapped in a time prison, so he must kill him to break the cycle. The narrator asks Sinbad his real name, which takes him off guard and he slips into the muddy waters and drowns.

The three who remain want to make the archipelago real, so the narrator creates a festival on the water and leaves the other two on the rubble while he goes to meet the Magic King.

He walks through the snow and meets Eizo, the Magic King, who takes him into a tent where people are eating Okonomiyaki and drinking tea. Eizo tells the narrator that he will give him the unfinished story in the box. He tells the narrator that he himself chose this. The perspective switches to how Eizo got the box.

He is in Manchuria, his wife and son have died of illness, and he is making a living selling ground pig bones as medicine. He runs into Hasegawa again who takes him to his apartment, which has a makeshift bookstore. He gets the first volume of Iwanami Bunko 1001 Nights. Hasegawa asks him to take an unfinished story back to Japan. The perspective switches to how Hasegawa got the story.

Hasegawa is with some monks trying to cross a border in the desert. A merchant asks if any of them are Japanese but they don’t answer—if they find that he is Japanese they will kill him. They go south towards the mountains and are caught in a snowstorm. The storm dies down at night, but the mountains are behind them. They try again the next day, but the same pattern repeats several times.

Finally, they are in a terrible storm, and Hasegawa falls off of his camel and is lost. He takes shelter by a rock. When the storm dies down at night he sees glowing in the distance. He finds the merchant standing next to a basin with a glowing moon floating above it. He tells him that he will give him an unfinished story. The perspective switches to how the merchant got the story.

The merchant named Sinbad grows up in Baghdad. His father wants him to lead a quiet life as a merchant in the city, but he wants to take to the sea. After his father dies he tries life in Baghdad for a while, but eventually goes to see and becomes a pirate.

One day after not seeing land for a long time he sees a tiny island and goes ashore with his crew. That night they realize it is actually a whale and it pulls down the ship and the whole crew except Sinbad who is left adrift on a washtub. He eventually sees some light in the distance and swims to it. It is a glowing moon floating over an eerily calm spot in the water. He looks at the surface of the moon and next thing he knows, he’s at the palace in the wasteland basin.

A monkey in a red hat and coat greets him and escorts him to the Full Moon Witch. There are all kinds of people in a market, like those in Baghdad, around the palace, but everyone is staring at Sinbad. He is a real person and they are all made by the Full Moon Witch’s magic.

He meets the Full Moon Witch, who is Scheherazade from 1001 Nights. He asks to go home, but she tells him he must take an unfinished story in exchange. When he finds the person who will finish it, they will be saved.

The perspective switches back to the narrator and the Magic King. A monkey in a red hat appears, then it turns into a tiger and eats the Magic King. Then the festival begins to sink, and a terrible storm comes.

Nemo barely makes it to an island alive, and when he wakes up he is on the observatory island by himself with the card box next to him. The final card says that telling the story will save him. Then the narrator remembers that he is Sayama Shoichi.

He is sitting across from Eizo in Eizo’s study. Eizo tells him about the story in the box, a missing story from 1001 Nights, and where it came from. He tells Sayama one story at a time, in the spirit of 1001 Nights, and drives him crazy. Sayama eventually steals the box and takes it to the Setsubun Matsuri. After he separates from Chiyo and Imanishi, Eizo confronts him and takes him into a tent. He tells him he chose this himself and he would give him the story.

On the observatory island, after a while, he begins to write down the story based on the cards and his memory. When he finishes after a long time he brings it down to the beach and gives it to the tiger. Sayama changes the tiger’s name from Sayama to The Tropics.

Now Sayama is back in a coffee shop in 1981 the day after the Setsubun Matsuri. He goes home and sleeps in and Chiyo and Imanishi ask what happened to him. He realizes they know nothing about he cardbox or the room within a room, so he knows he’s in a parallel world.

It’s strange being in a parallel world at first, but after 36 years he is used to it. He is a researcher at the National Anthropology Museum focusing on 1001 Nights. His grad student shows him a French manuscript of a lost story from 1001 Nights and it is similar to The Tropics.

He goes out walking in the museum to think, then walks out to a field. He sees a glowing moon in the middle of the field. It gets dimmer as he approaches is and is gone by the time he is in the middle of the field.

Later, Sayama goes to Tokyo for a conference and gets together with Chiyo and Imanishi. They plan to go to the Silent Book Club. Takeuchi and Shiraishi are there. Shiraishi pulls out The Tropics by Morimi Tomihiko and begins to tell about it.