“All of my dreams and most of my thoughts happen inside my shipping container – to such an extent I’ve started calling it an ocean container. […] I am not referring to something on the surface of the sea, but something deep within it, and a sense of limitlessness” (p.88).
The Ocean Container starts right from the fall of the curtain, with his protagonist’s physical and mental decline mimicking and epitomizing a moribund fauna in the grip of global pollution. Then, it begins again – from Act I this time. Following the electoral victory of an all-controlling political system quite aptly named Economy, the narrator, a former environmental activist (and an artist, occasionally), is forced into hiding in a green intermodal container in a *safety* (sic!) compound, to wit, a sort of asylum center for homeless people. There he meets all sorts of outcasts, potential spies (among which, most notably, a man with two right eyes!), and vicious thugs. The compound is also visited by a dubious Japanese theatrical society which organizes bizarre exhibitions, butoh workshops, and Noh operas slightly verging towards pornography. A tapir and a white peafowl, both magically out of place and apparently standing for the renewed hope of saving the planet, are soon dispensed with. Distant from his family and furiously daydreaming of AS7’s high life, perhaps his wealthier, luckier alter-ego, the protagonist grows more and more lonely and withdraws into himself up to a point where he finally decides that the outside world simply isn’t worth it and that his dreams and hallucinations are far more significant.
Patrik Sampler is a self-referential writer – to be intended in the best possible sense. Italian avant-garde writer Carlo Dossi, for one, was extremely self-referential. Some of the best writers are. Patrik Sampler’s first novel is the perfect summation of all his passions and obsessions – his concern for the environment, his love of Japan and Japanese theatre in all its forms (Kabuki, Noh, Butoh), the yearning for a free, unconstrained, instinctive language similar to the one spoken by the Emperor in the Noh Opera (remember, he’s one of the guys behind the satirical noise duo Dupobs). Other forms of such self-referentiality are the several references to painters, writers, musicians, and bands (Henri Rousseau, Mishima Yukio, Momus, DAF, The Escalators), brief extracts from other books, and, more generally speaking, a lavish catalogue of plant and animal species. Having read (and translated) Sampler’s short story ‘Kansai Airport’, The Ocean Container also seems to provide the reader with the ultimate version of certain character types and leitmotifs. While the man with the two right eyes in the novel seems to be a more effective replica of the kid 'standing out', the inconsistent ads playing on the bus seat back screen in the story anticipate the ones preceding the Prime Minister’s Address. Likewise, the proud pomposity of a male voice-over promoting Canada as a “land of opportunity” evokes a similar episode in the short story.
Sampler’s erotic-satiric treatment of a country totally devoted to capitalism and consumerism alternates political discourse taken to extremes with typically Japanese fetishes, managing to create a very distinctive mood. The book also seems to tell us something crucial about the human condition and the undeniable necessity to find one’s own deep self. The Ocean Container is a unique specimen. Growing into it may take a bit, but once the charm has had its effect, you’ll feel like reading it over and over again.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
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