Life is Elsewhere/Burn Your Flags by Iain Maloney is a sobering and thoughtful book. In particular, in late-2021, the pandemic setting feels almost too close to home. The pandemic has been a lot – for all of us. The losses we have individually and collectively experienced are immeasurable. It will likely be years before we are able to come to terms with what has, and is still happening. As Cormac so eloquently says on page two, “Life is elsewhere. I am elsewhere. But this year death is everywhere. Death is here.”
Yet the story is about more than the pandemic. In Life is Elsewhere/Burn Your Flags, many other themes are also explored – primarily those of identity and loss. Through our two protagonists, we are taken on a journey from their dreary pandemic present, to their curious pasts. A lot is left unsaid, but that is exactly where we are able to learn the most.
Life is Elsewhere/Burn Your Flags is about an Irish man named Cormac and his Japanese wife, Eri. who live in Japan. The story is broken down into two sections, Life is Elsewhere, narrated by Cormac, and Burn Your Flags, narrated by Eri.
The story begins with Cormac in his car on Christmas Day in 2020. He is alone and on his way to the mountains and desperately waiting for a phone call from Dr. Endo. His mind is dark with thoughts of the pandemic, the closing of his bar, and his falling apart marriage with Eri. As he reaches, and makes his way up the mountain, we learn more about his past and how he feels about lockdown and the present. It is clear that he is lost, but not so much that he will be found.
In Burn Your Flags, the narrator changes to Eri, but on Christmas Eve of the same year. In the 1980s, she was a punk runaway teenager who spent her time documenting a legendary female punk band in Tokyo. Yet in 2020, she quietly runs a language school, now largely from home because of the pandemic. Her attitude remains sharp and works in deep contrast to the calmer and more contemplative attitude of Cormac’s narrative, but she has her reasons and through her narrative, we learn that Eri is not all that she appears to be.
Life is Elsewhere
Cormac is calm and pensive in his narrative. Yet he reflects on the past and makes Yukio Mishima references almost obsessively. This immediately contrasts against the calm that he is trying to project. His character then becomes less about what he is saying and more about what can be discovered by paying attention to what he doesn’t say. He is trapped, but without the words to say it clearly.
The name of Cormac’s narrative is telling of this – he is truly elsewhere. This is obviously about the pandemic, but it’s about other things too. Yet to go into more detail would ruin the magic that Maloney has created within Cormac’s mind. However, if we acknowledge Cormac’s status as an immigrant, it may not be so hard to guess what kinds of problems he is facing. As any immigrant will tell you, there’s a lot to be said about the topic and a lot that is left unsaid too.
Burn Your Flags
Eri acts as a strong contrast to Cormac – she is not calm, and instead is full of fire. Despite her punk past, she leads a relatively average life. However, this life is only what she shows on the outside. What is inside her heart has remained constant. Like many of us, she knows that she is unhappy, but isn’t sure if she’s ready to face her past. This all changes when she gets an email from one of the band members of Burn Your Flags – the group she was documenting as a teenager. Through this, we can catch a glimpse of the “real” Eri.
Like Life is Elsewhere, the title of Eri’s narrative has a lot to say. And yet again, going into too much detail would ruin the surprise. From looking at the title alone though, there is a lot to be understood about Eri – and how exactly the ideas found in her narrative relate and contrast to Cormac’s. This approach of comparing and contrasting the belief systems of the couple is particularly poignant today. The world continues to become more and more divided precisely when we need to work together – just like Cormac and Eri.
The narratives of Eri and Cormac are about their marriage and interpersonal relationships. However, it is important going in to understand that Life is Elsewhere/Burn Your Flags isn’t just about a marriage that is falling apart. It’s about destroying borders and realizing who you are. It’s about being unrestrained by the system that is designed to keep you in. Perhaps most important, it’s about stereotypes. Iain Maloney has done a wonderful job portraying complex issues in few words. And what is described above is only the half of it. There is so much more to enjoy once you put the book in your hands and start to read.