The Tales of Ise by Arihara no Narihara-10th Century Japan
A few days ago I was in one of my favorite local book stores and they had a big table of books for sale at 80 percent discount. I spotted a Tuttle Publishing Book by the cover design. The title was The Tales of Ise (translated and introduced by H Jay Harris from Japanese, 1972, 251 pages with notes). I had never heard of it. I checked the back cover and it was a set of short stories and poems about court life and romantic encounters written in the late 10th century and 11th century Japan. I am interesting in reading older Japanese literature to help me to understand the Japanese novel as well as for the value of the work itself. So I bought this book.
When TheTales of Ise were composed the world still had to wait 350 years for The Canterbury Tales. The Khmer empire was at its peak. Robin Hood was in Sherwood Forest. Streets were beginning to be paved in parts of Paris. The Vikings settled in Greenland. The Mayan civilization had begun its decline. In China the country was unified under the Sung Dynasty. Here in the Philippines the country was ruled largely by a collection of kingdoms, rajahnates, principalities, confederations and sultanates with about half of the country under governing bodies with a scope of no more than a few square miles. There was trade with China and Japan and very sophisticated gold art was produced. Most of the population were hunter gatherers. Hundreds of languages were spoken. We have no literature from the pre-Spanish period left from the Philippines as the Spanish burned all the writings they could find but there are good reasons to think there was a literary culture among the very elite modeled on the Chinese and Indonesian forms of the times.
The introduction has some useful material about court life in Japan of the period. It was interesting to learn that out of the estimated population of 3 million about 5000 people had noble status. Japan was at that time first beginning to develop a cultural identity that was not totally based on Chinese forms and roots. There is little in the introduction about how these literary works were preserved or transmitted. Professor Harris tries to get us to accept 10th century Japan as a culture in which poetry plays more a role than it has in any place or time prior to this but presents no evidence for this very broad almost silly claim.
The work consists of 125 of what are called "Dans". These are very brief prose pieces followed by a poem which had to follow prescribed rules as to grammar, word count and imagery and was to serve as a commentary on the prose. The vast majority of them concerning a noble man making advances toward a noble woman. Here is a very typical Dan (64)
"Long ago a young man, incredulous as to where she might be from, recited to a woman who was not sharing his intimacies, even in the privacy of his letters the poem
Could I make myself
like the wind that gently blows
at your bamboo blind--
Through its loosely woven chinks
might I enter you.
Though there be a wind
which I cannot hold in check
at my bamboo blind--
Who has designed to give it leave
that it should seek my chamber".
This is the flow of these stories. We see the natural images that still flows through the Japanese novel. We have to work to figure out what the noble lady intends in her reply. Does she repulse her suitor or simply ask that he follow procedures? Some of the Dans are a bit longer and give us a bit more of glimpse of court life love affairs. I would endorse this book to those interested in increasing their background knowledge of Japanese literature but not really to anyone else. The longer episodes were interesting but the shorter one were very alike. I think many readers would quickly be bored with this work after a few pages. I would classify it as mainly a background read and as such I think it is very useful and will deepen my appreciation for older Japanese novels.