Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Saturday, October 31, 2009

"Some Prefer Nettles" by Junichiro Tanizaki

Some Prefer Nettles is the fourth work by Junichiro Tanizaki  that I have read.   (It was first published in 1928 in serial fashion in a literary publication.   The version I read was translated from Japanese by Edward Seidensticker in 1951.)   Like Quicksand  it has as its center a failed marriage, though of a different kind and among people of a very different sort.

Misako and her husband Kaname got married at a time of matrimonial transition from arranged marriages through family connections or brokers to marriages of romantic love.    They are in their mid thirties and have a son, Hiroshi, about twelve.  They do not hate each other, plot against each other or have horrible fights.  The husband simply feels no sexual attraction for his wife.   They can and do have civil conversations but they are described as like two strangers in an inn sharing a bed when the inn is full.   The husband even encourages his wife to start an affair with a male friend of hers to ease her into another marriage.   The father of Misako is the third central character in Some Prefer Nettles.    He is refereed to simply as "the old man".   He has been a widower for a long time, has enough money to live a cultivated life of leisure and keep a mistress the same age as his daughter.   Misako, of course, is embarrassed by the fact

that her father lives with a woman her own age and  she treats the mistress with thinly disguised contempt.  She sees her as sort of like a maid that has promoted herself via extra duties to a position above her station in life.   Kamame and his father in law have a cordial relationship.   The husband does find the father in law intimidating and cannot relate to the highly refined interests of the very cultivated older man.   He is a bit bored by him.   The father in law is very much "old school".   He scorns what he sees as the decadent Hollywood movies that his daughter loves and the romance novels she reads.   He is totally into Bunraku, a form of traditional puppet theater founded in Osaka in the late 17th century.    Puppet theater goes much further back than that in Japan.   Great care is lavished on the costumes of the puppets.   There are 100s of plays.  The father in law loves to talk about the smallest details in the plays, being especially interested in the costumes worn by the dolls.   He and his son in law go to a festival where many plays will be put on over a three day period.   The father in law is not really judgmental when his son in law tells him of the divorce that may be coming.   He feels the problem is caused by western corruption bringing people to false expectations about marriages.

Unlike Quicksand, characters in this work are basically sympathetic.   There are no real villains.  It is a lot of fun to see what happens in the marriage and how everyone deals with events in their own way.  I do not want to give away any more plot details as it is terribly clever. 

There is an amazing two page description of a minor character, a fifty year old Canadian woman who owns and operates a number of brothels, that is an amazing literary jewel.

In Some Prefer Nettles  we see a classic Reading Life type in the father in law, a man who has sort of cultivated himself into a isolated corner.   His inner life has been totally enriched by things those around him do not fathom and frankly find a total bore.   I did not at all see the ending of this book coming.  Tanizaki sort of plots his books so you have to continually rethink what is happening.  

As I was writing this post in my mind I began to imagine Tanizaki reading one of Henry James 1000 word descriptions of the inner life of a character and saying "Not bad Henry, but here is what you missed and by the way I edited out 800 words for you".   I see him telling Flaubert "Sorry Gustav but the women in your books are really dullards".   I see him telling Joyce, "I could put hidden references to things nobody will understand in my books to prove how smart I am but I do not feel the need".   I imagine him telling D H Lawrence that he can create more erotic power with veiled suggestion than Lawrence  could with all the banned words that can be found.  This does not mean he would be right to say these things but the thought was there for me.

 I endorse this book without reservations.   It is not simply an historical curiosity.   All of the characters are perfect.   There are no trite plot lines.   The ending befuddled me and may do the same to others.   As a side benefit we learn a lot about Japanese life in the 1920s.

Mel u

Friday, October 30, 2009

"Quicksand" by Junichiro Tanizaki

Quicksand by Junichiro Tanizaki (translated from Japanese by Howard Hibbert in 1993, first published 1928)

Forget the leading ladies in "Melrose Place", "Desperate Housewives", or the female villains in the latest Korean soap opera.   None of them are half as devious, manipulative, seductive, or beautiful as Mitsuko in Quicksand.   (It should be noted that those  are Mitsuko's good qualities.)

Sonoko and Mitsuko meet at an art class.   Mitsuko is posing,  covered only in a sheet , as the Kannon Bodhisattva for the class.   Sonoko cannot help but notice what a beautiful delicate face Mitsuko has as well as her flawless body.   The two women get to know each other over the course of a few weeks in class and begin to spend some time together.    One day Sonoko asks Mitsuko to come back to her house and pose nude for her so she can complete her drawing of her as the Kannon Bodhisattva.
We begin to wonder now who is the deceiver and who the deceived, of course someone can be both.  A rumor begins to go around the school that the women are lovers.   At first both women are shocked.  Then they become lovers.   They begin to deceive Sonoko's seemingly naive husband, who owes his status in life to the parents of his wife, something she likes to throw in his face every once and a while.   Unaccepted turns of events are everywhere, manipulations within ploys with schemes at every turn.  There are no explicit scenes in Quicksand  but there is more erotic power felt than in D H Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, also first published in 1928.  

One day Sonoko learns under shocking circumstances that Mitsuko has a male lover also and might be pregnant.   Things begin to get really strange now.   A triangle of sorts develops between the man and the two women.   Then another triangle develops between the husband and the two women.   Then the husband and the man meet.   I was not able to see what was going to happen next and I think most readers feel the same way.   The plot is in no way cliched.   The characters are whole people, especially the women who are brilliantly realized.  

We get a good look at day to day life among financially comfortable (but not really rich) people in Japan in the 1920s.   We get a very good look a marriage in decline.   Quicksand does a great job with some family fight scenes.    We learn some things in passing.   We go alone when Mitsuko, who may or may not be pregnant, goes for a prenatal examination and we find out about a women's right to choose in prewar Japan.   I do not want to give away any more of the plot lines as the twists and turns are just so clever and so much fun.   The ending will make you rethink the whole book and wonder if maybe you got everything wrong as you were reading Quicksand.  

I really liked this book.   It is perfectly plotted and paced.   All of the characters, even the minor ones like Mitsuko's maid Una, are completely credible.   We see the dynamics of power in relationships.   We feel the beauty and erotic power of Mitsuko.

I have now created a new subcategory for my To Be Read List.  I call it my "read all they have written list".  Junichiro Tanizaki is now on this list along with Kenzaburo Oe.  I have already posted on his   Arrowroot and The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi.   It appears he has 12 works in print in English by Vintage Press.  I plan to read all of them. 

I endorse this book without reservation.
Mel u

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"The Noodle Maker" by Ma Jian

The Noodle Maker by Ma Jian (1991, trans. from Chinese 2004 by Flora Drew) is the 3rd work I have read for Jeannie's Chinese Challenge.   The Challenges runs from Sept 1, 2009 to Sept 1, 2010.

The Noodle Maker is set China, in the 1980s.   It begins with two old friendly enemies having dinner together as they often do.   One is a writer of articles for the government about heroic workers giving their lives to save pigs on state farms.   The other is a professional blood donor who has found a way to become wealthy and have a big social standing by donating his blood.   (How this can happen is just part of the wonderful twisted humor of this book.)   The writer dreams of one day giving up his party propaganda work and writing the great novel he has been working on in his mind for years.   The blood donor tells him he is a delusional fool and should just try to write more and better stories about heroic workers who would rather work themselves to death than miss their factory production quotas.   After the opening chapter in which the two lead characters have a meal and solve the problems of China, the book develops into a set of very loosely related tales (each could stand on its own a short story) that are ideas for the book the writer hopes to write one day.   The blood donor feels free to but in at times telling the writer how stupid his stories are. 

There are eight stories.   The first one sort of explains how the blood donor got rich during the period of the open  door policy.   The second one is an insane story about a mother and her 35 year old son who run a for profit crematorium where much care is devoted to considering what songs to play while your love one is burned.    The son tells us all about dead bodies in China, what days certain types of people die on etc.  He is always happy to see a party official come in  as it is time for some well deserved revenge on the oppressor.  He has observations on all the people brought in, sort of summing up their lives in a few words,  grave yard humor at it best or worst.    (If you are a young attractive female I would not go here for cremation).

One of the stories is about a once beautiful actress (women are very much valued based on the appeal of their bodies in the world of The Noodle Maker ) who decides to kill herself by having a tiger eat her on stage.    The owner of the venue sees nothing odd about this and is maybe interested in allowing her to do it but then agrees when she offers to have sex with him, if he feels like it.    There is nobody with a healthy self image in this world.

One chapter "Let the Mirror Be the Judge" is a viciously nasty look at the reaction of the women in a small all female office to a new twenty year old coworker with what seem to be ideal breasts.   The character of women is somehow reflected in the size and shape of their breasts in common folk views.   Large round breast signify a virtuous wife and a good mother.   Medium size means  the woman is suitable as a mistress.
A woman with small breasts is normally the most intelligent sort.   The other women hate the new employee with perfect breasts as soon as they see her.   When she leaves the office  they speculate about her breasts.  The office manager, a totally loveless 51 year old, says her breasts are large because she has allowed many men to fondle them.   (This is presented as assumed to be true by all common sense.)   Some of the women insist she must make use of a breast pump, another speculates that she had implants.   All of them  assume the woman, who has never had any sort of romantic encounter in her life, is very promiscuous and freely tell everyone who knows her this.   One of the women pretends to be her friend then asks her to let  her see her breasts.   The woman is driven to despair by this and begins to take sleeping pills.   One take she decides to prove to everyone that her breasts are real by running naked through the streets.   Her and her family end up disgraced and they move to the country side.   She ends up married  years later to a farm worker, still never having had the first romantic episode in her life.   The farmer finds about her old reputation and assumes he has been tricked into marrying a woman with a very bad past and beats her for the rest of her life.   This is presented as if it were a  simple narration of normal events and attitudes.

No one in this book is spared.   Nobody comes off looking good.  Men are sexual predators and women are all one step above prostitutes.   This is not presented as if it were a bad thing, it simply life in China.   Every body is envious of anything someone else has and takes joy in the misfortunes of others.   If someone out ranks you, suck up to them until they are out of power then suck up to whoever takes  their place.   If someone is below you, exploit them as much as you can.   Personal relationships are power struggles not partnerships.  Life is a macabre joke so grab all the pleasure you can.  

One of the funniest chapters is a debate between a dog and a man who mouths the party line on everything because he is scared to do otherwise.   No one is seen as actually believing in the party doctrines but everyone pretends they do.  

The Noodle Maker is a very funny book.   It invokes a   nasty twisted kind of laughter.   I thought to myself, these things should not be treated as jokes then I wanted to get onto the next joke.  

If you can imagine George Orwell and Nikolai Gogol collaborating on a Mad Magazine article illustrated by R C Crumb and you sort of can see the flavor of this hilarious evil book.   Tyranny does not stand up well against laughter.  

I endorse this book  for those with a  bit of a twisted sense of humor but will advise parts of it shows misogistic actions and thoughts.  There is sexual violence.    In fact the only admirable character in the book is a talking dog.   Ma Jian's writings are banned in China.   He now lives in England.  

Mel u

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"The Colorless Paintings" by Ineko Sata

"The Colorless Paintings" by Ineko Sata is the fourth selection from The Crazy Iris and Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath (edited and introduced by Kenzaburo Oe) that I have so far read.   It is only thirteen pages long and was first published in a Japanese literary magazine in 1961.  

Ms Sata was born and raised in Nagasaki but was not there when the atomic bomb blast occurred August 9, 1945.    As "The Colorless Paintings" opens the narrator and her friend Y are at the opening day of an exhibit of painting at the very prestigious Tokyo National Museum.   They are looking for painting done by their friend K which are part of the exhibit.   K was a member of the communist party of Japan as was the narrator.   He also had advanced tuberculosis.   They find the paintings.  

The pictures seem like softly moaning heretics..The pictures even remind us of burnt bones...  These posthumous paintings of his completely deny all color.  K, while painting them, repeatedly rejected color..the paintings are powerful precisely because they are colorless, because we see them as an honest expression of the violent drama that took place within him, purity withdrawing into itself.

K's paintings were done after he was diagnosed as having radiation sickness from his presence on August 9, 1945.   K and the narrator were long time associates in the communist party of Japan but she never knew he was exposed to the atomic bomb.   He never spoke of it nor had her friend Y who was also exposed.   K lived the rest of his life in silent anxiety over what the effects of the blast on him might be one day.   Exposure to the bomb was known by the early 1950s to produce high rates of cancer and leukemia in those exposed to it.  They left the exhibit to go to an annually held memorial event for the victims of the bomb.   The event takes place at The Nagasaki Peace Park

Y spoke for the first time about the day when the atomic bomb was dropped.   And because she had done so, K also spoke about it, he too for the first time.   When describing the tragic scene, K seemed to be walking back and forth in the midst of the ruins.   "Everyday I was walking among corpses.   And even after I heard about how K and his friends had wandered around in the radiated area,  I somehow thought of them as being outside the radiation.

The narrator tells us that K died of liver cancer.

The name of the disease is liver cancer.   But what is the name of the thing that deprived this man of all color? What could it be called?   It seems that the ideas suggested by these painting preclude anything that is common place.   They appear to belong to another realm.   They rather seem to be produced by the will to defy, but that defiance had to be painted, even though the colors escaped the artist, and that's why they display an unnamable grief...Y sways and takes a step forward.   It seems as though her body automatically sways and takes a step..Y must have sensed deep in her heart what the paintings were saying.

Ineko Sata  was born in Nagasaki (1904 to 1998)  into a very poor family.   In her late teenage years she worked in a cafe frequented by young literary types.   From these associations she began to write and publish short stories focusing on the problems of  women from poor families.   She began also a life time involvement with the communist party of Japan.   She was briefly expelled from the party when she became an early denouncer of Stalinism.   She married one writer, divorced him and married another.  She was an early advocate of women's right in Japan.   She wrote several highly regarded and prize winning novels but "The Colorless Paintings" appear to be her only works in print in English.   Her longer works have never been translated.    Sata has a great affinity for the beautiful.   "The Colorless Paintings" has kind of a lonely feel to it.

In researching background information on the bombings, I came upon an article Mr Tsutomu Yamaguchi.   He is one of 165 people who were exposed to both atomic bomb blasts.   He wrote a book about his experiences but it is available only in Japanese.   In 2006 the United Nations invited him to take part in a documentary about double A Bomb Victims.   As of this writing he still lives, fighting cancer caused by the blasts. 

Monday, October 26, 2009

"Arrowroot" by Junichiro Tanizaki-

Arrowroot by Junichiro Tanizaki (1931, trans. by Anthony Chambers is kindly included by Vintage Press in the same book as The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi.  (This is a decision of Vintage unrelated to the works or the intentions of the author but it does add a lot of value to the book and I appreciate it.)

Arrowroot is now the oldest Japanese work I have posted on, published for the first time 78 years ago.    It is about the search of a man whose parents died when he was quite young for his maternal roots.   The story is set in Japan in 1910 in Tokyo and Osaka.   The narrator is deeply involved in The Reading Life.   He sees the world through the classic dramas and epics of 15th to 17th century Japan.    Everything is somehow formulized through that prism for him.  When he sees something or meets someone he is reminded of a play he has seen or a poem he has read and then launches into an internal monologue linking one literary work to another then another.    We learn of a number of the great works of classical Japanese literature.  

The narrator is an extremely cultured man who can only marginally relate to those below his level.   When he does relate to them, he sees them as minor characters in a Kabuki play.   The narrator was orphaned and raised by relatives starting at a young age.   He decides one day to seek out his maternal roots in Osaka.    When he goes back he finds out that at about age 13 his mother was sold by her parents to a business he can identify only as being in the "pleasure quarters" of Osaka.   This might mean she was sold to a tea house as a kitchen worker or was to be trained as a Geisha but most likely it means she  became a prostitute at age 13.   Somehow through a great stroke of good luck his mother married a wealthy man.   She died only a few years after having her son, our narrator.   He finds out his family were makers of fine paper, from arrowroot.   He sees a girl in her late teens making paper and he tells her family he wants to marry her.    She reminds him of a selfless heroine in one of his dramas.  

To me the fun of this work is that it shows a man living completely The Reading Life in a literature in which I have no home but I can totally relate to the narrator nevertheless.   You feel his love for reading and you know it is the most important thing in his life.   Like other characters whose Reading Life I have posted on, he is both shielded from the world by his reading and allowed to experience the world more deeply by it.  

There is a good bit of information about Japanese religion in this story (40 pages).  We are treated to a wonderful series of fox images while being given an education in the role of the fox in Japanese culture.   The treatment of the religious beliefs of the common people of Osaka (I think Osaka was seen as more true to classical Japanese ideals than Tokyo in this narrative) also seems an oblique commentary on the sterility of Confucian dictates.   Magic permeates throughout the world of the story.   The extreme antirealism of classical drama in which the narrator is absorbed allows him not just to reinterprert events as a No Play but see them that way in the first place.  

Arrowroot a wonderful story about a lover of The Reading Life.    What our narrator reads maybe alien to most of us but he is a brother in the life.  Yesterday I bought three more novels by Tanizaki.  

He lived 1886 to 1965.   He published his first work in 1910 and at once was considered a major literary figure.   He even worked briefly in the silent films of the era as a dramatist.   He was exempt from military service in WWII due to his age.   At his death he was considered the greatest living Japanese writer.   

Sunday, October 25, 2009

"The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi" by Junichiro Tanizaki

The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi by Junichiro Tanizaki (1935, 138 pages-trans. by Anthony Chambers) is simply an amazing work of art.   Written nearly 75 years ago, it is my first preWWII Japanese novel, it feels like it could have been written last week or in the 18th century by someone with a very strange sense of humor and amazing talent.   I simply loved this work.   It is darkly hilarious.   An acute psychological insight is shown throughout.   The book opens with a very deeply nuanced interpertation of a portrait of the samurai lord who is  the central character in the book.    I do not think Henry James or Gustav Flaubert could have produced anything better.   The Secret History of the Lord of  Musashi is written as if were a biography done by a traditional Confucian historian who is writing a tale of heroic days gone by to inspire readers to good deeds.    Tanizaki is considered the first Japanese author to give complete portrayals of
female characters in a literary work.

Tanizaki felt that the values of traditional Confucian writings had hampered the development of  Japanese literature.    Characters were not whole persons but stereo types and any narrative prose about the past tended to be simply hymns to the greatness of old leaders.   Confucian teaching regarded  fiction as the product of an effete and decadent mentality and would be horrified by anything that suggested an imperfection in the character of a samurai lord.    The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi is a parody of this tradition.    It centers on how a great samurai developed a strange sexual fetish and how this fetish came to be the secret ruling passion of his life.

The narrative is set in the 16th century.    Our hero, for that is who he is, is a royal hostage in a castle under siege by an opposing warlord.   (It was the practice in 16th century Japan, just as it had long been in Europe and China,  to place royal children in the hands of  potential enemies as a kind of peace keeping device.)    Our hero is 12 years old and very excited by the battle outside the castle.   He begs his attendant, a low ranking samurai to let him join the fighting.    His request is denied.   He then asks an older servant woman to help him slip out of the castle.   She knows if he gets killed her life will be lost so she says ok I will let you see something you will find interesting.   She takes him to a room where the women of  the castle are "dressing heads".    In samurai battles it was customary to cut off the head of an opposing samurai you killed and bring it back as a trophy to present to your over lord.    Of course a bloody head would make a poor show so a ritualized procedure for cleaning up heads developed over time.   

I cannot take you to the battlefield, but if you want to see some heads I can arrange it for you...She explained in a whisper that almost every night five or six of the women had been selected to attend to the enemy heads taken in battle.   They would check the heads against a list, label them and wash off the blood stains...The women would dress the hair, touch up the dye on the teeth and even apply some light cosmetics to make the head presentable...Dressing heads, as it was called, was considered women's work, and  their being a shortage of women in the castle, some of the hostages had been ordered to help.

Our 12 year old hero begins to feel his first sexual stirrings.

The heads themselves do not make a strong impression on him.   It is the contrast between the heads and the women working on them that somehow excites new feelings in him.   He fixates on the hands of the women as they dress the heads.  

This seemed to enhance the strange beauty of their hands, especially as he saw them braiding the hair of the heads.   He was fascinated by the tender care and love they seemed to give to the heads.   He begins to have fantasies. 

His fantasy, therefore--the pleasure he would feel if he were a head placed before the girl-was illogical.   It was the fantasy itself that gave him pleasure.   He indulged in the fantasy that he could become a head without losing consciousness.   He tried to imagine that one of the heads brought to the women was his own.   When the girl tapped a head with the ridge of her comb, he imagined that he himself was being tapped, and this brought his pleasure to the summit:   his brain grew numb and his body trembled.    Among the many different heads, he would concentrate on the ugliest...and say to himself, "That is me".   This gave him far greater pleasure that identifying with the head of a splendid young warrior.   In short, he envied the pitiable, repulsive heads more than the beautiful ones.

Then he notices one of the heads is without a nose.    It was the custom on the battleground at that time to cut off the nose from any head of a samurai you killed if you did not have time to cut the head of  in the heat of  battle.   After the battle was over, you could then use the nose (which the killer kept) as proof the head of the fallen warrior was your trophy.   To have your nose removed and then never to have to reunited with the head was a great shame to the warrior and might cause a disgrace in the afterlife.    Heads without a nose are called "women's heads".

In a  series of bizare events, one night our 12 year old hero sneaks into the enemy camp.  He enters the tent of the opposing general and he kills him with a stab through the throat.   As he was trying to cut off his head he is interupted by two of general's pages.   He kills both of pages, he knows he must run for his life so he cuts of the nose of the general and takes it back to the castle with him.    The general has been "denosed".   If word of this gets out it will be a great humiliation for the entire clan and a horrible shame on his family.   The attacking army declares that their general is ill and leaves the battlefield.   Our hero wants to tell everyone what he has done but he knows if he does no one will believe him.

We next meet our hero maybe six or seven  years in the future.   He has already developed into a fearful warrior, terrifying even to those he leads.    He is a second son so he has no hope of inheriting clan leadership as long as his older but weak in character brother lives.    His father is worried as he does not want our hero to become clan leader as he knows he will bring on horrible wars just for the joy of battle.   Now things start to get a bit stranger.    The narrative is done is a completely straightforward fashion as if this is all part of an inspiring tale of heroism.   His older brother is married to the 14 year old daughter of the man whose nose he took when he was twelve.  She is, of course, a great, delicate beauty

A man who has masochistic sexual appetites, as did the Lord of Musashi, is apt to construct fantasies in which his female partner conforms to his own perverse specifications.

Exciting and mysterious events put out her right in front of the castle where his brother and his wife live.   He notices one of the stones in the wall is loose.    He notices there is no moss on that section of the castle wall.   He removes the stone, it is much thinner  than all the other stones.   It leads into a very long upper slopping tunnel.   Our hero

squeezed through the opening, just as one does in the Buddhist purification rite known as "passing through the womb"...At this point, I hope to be forgiven for raising a rather indelicate subject, the design of toilets used by arisocratic ladies of the time...ladies born into a daimyo family never allowed anyone to see their  excretory matter, nor did they ever see it themselves.   Such delicacy was accomplished by digging under the toilet a deep shaft which was filled for eternity when the lady died...In other words, Tereutasu found himself deep in the earth directly below Lady Kikyo's toilet.

I do not want to give away much more of the plot as a lot of the fun of this novel is in the crazy events that take place.   The plot is devilishly clever, hilarious and just flat out wonderfully told.   The hero of this Confucian panegyric can obtain sexual gratification only if he can somehow imagine that the woman he is with is dressing his head.   He even goes so far as to build in Lady Kikyo's bed chamber a hole in the floor with a platform under it so a man can stand on it with only his head sticking out of the floor.   The servant doing this is then advised if he does anything that make him seem living, Lady Kikyo will cut off his nose.   Various melodramas of a sadomasochistic nature played out, with Lady Kikyo the willing partner.   In time our hero's relationship with her ends, how this happens is a great story also.   On the surface, the rest of our hero's life was one of great glory.   Great warlords prostrated themselves at his feet.   Under it all known only to his women and his  servants, the ruling passion of his life was having intimate contact with women in circumstances that would allow him to imagine the woman is ritualistically dressing his severed head.   It is suggested by the narrator, that terrible things happened behind closed doors in pursuit of our hero's needs.

The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi is a weird and wonderful work.   It is a bit of a wicked book and it for sure mocks Confucian traditions as well as Buddhist rituals.    The image of a great samurai leader crawling up a toilet has to be seen as subverting history as taught in Japanese schools.   The female lead in the story is wonderfully realized as a whole person, not a character in a stock history written to instruct elite school boys.   I am trying to imagine an English or American writer of the 1930s who might have produced a story like this but so far I cannot.   I was so happy when I found out Vintage Press has eight other works by Tanizaki in print.   I should also note that this work is beautifully written.   Of course I do not know if it is well translated or not but there are none of the "false notes" that readers have found in the work of other translators.

Junichiro Tanizaki had a very interesting life history.  I will talk a bit about it when I post on his long short story "Arrowroot", which is included as a companion piece by Vintage in the same book as  The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi.   

Friday, October 23, 2009

"Prophecy of the Sisters" by Michelle Zink

Prophecy of the Sisters by Michelle Zink (2009, 343 pages-Young Adult)

The Three Stories I have posted on so far from Crazy Iris and other Stories of  Atomic Aftermath, edited and introduced by Kenzaburo Oe are all world class treasures but they are very far from light reading.    I do find myself needing a change of pace after reading these stories.    I recently read Lois Lowry's The Giver with  this objective of a change of pace in mind.    

A month ago I saw Prophecy of the Sisters by Michelle Zink in a bookstore.   I really liked the cover.   As I normally do with an unknown to me author I check the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads before I consider buying a book I know little about.    Most people seemed to like the book a lot.   There were a number of five star reviews on Amazon.   I also do like fantasy novels.   I have a proclivity for retreating into fantasy worlds at times and really enjoy a novel that constructs a well done alternate reality.   I also like to read first novels and this is Zink's first novel.    Given all this I decided  Prophecy of the Sisters might be a good escape book.

It is fully centered in the sensitive bookish young person battles the forces of darkness category.   The central characters are 16 year old twin sisters, Liu our narrator and her evil twin, Alice.   (The plot is a bit cliched as you can see but that is ok sometimes you like a cliched plot)    Both of the parents of the girls have recently died, the father under mysterious circumstances.   It is not made clear exactly when the book is meant to take place but it is in a time prior to automobiles.   The setting is England.   The family is quite wealthy.   The father of the girls was happiest when he was among his books in his private library.   He was very into all sorts of mythology and ancient occult lore.    Liu shares his interest and is also quite bookish.

One day the girls discover a mysterious tattoo like mark on their person.   A soothsayer is consulted who after some hesitation and plot maneuvering ends up telling the girls that they are the subjects of an ancient prophecy.   They discover their father had imported other girls to England.   Why he did this is part of the plot.   We wonder what the father knew.   Was he trying to protect his girls?   It turns out the girls may be key figures in a long running battle with dark forces.   They also go to a seance to visit with their late father.  (Ok maybe the novel is a bit cliched!)   There is some mild romantic action.

I was kept interested in seeing what would happen next.   Both of the sisters were brought to life by the  narrative.    This is part one of a three part trilogy.   There is no closure in this book and we will have to wait until at least 2011 for the last book.  

To me Prophecy of the Sisters was an ok escapist read.   The world it depicts has nowhere near the depth of the Harry Potter series or even that of  The Giver.  Both of these are very well done works so this is not meant as a criticism just as a notice to potential readers to not expect too much.     Some of the language of the book is overwritten and sometimes the thoughts expressed by the narrator border on silly.    This is a first novel and I will read the next two works in the trilogy with interest.   Some reviewers on Amazon were crazy for the book.   If I were going to rate it in the Amazon or Goodreads system I would give it 3 stars.   I would say it is an ok read if you can accept the cliched plot and overwritten quality some of the work.  

Mel u

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"The Empty Can" by Kyoto Hayashi

Welcome to our Guests from U C L A
Please share your thoughts on
This story with us

Other Stories of the Atomic Age edited and introduced by
Kenzaburo Oe. I have already posted on two stories from this
collection, “The Crazy Iris” by Masuji Ibuse and “Summer Flowers” by
Tamiki Flowers. After reading “Summer Flowers”, about the first few
days after the atomic bomb drop on Hiroshima, I said to myself this is
the saddest story I have ever read. Now I think “The Empty Can”, a
gentle and beautiful tale of memory by a woman who was in Nagasaki when the second atom bomb exploded may well be a sadder tale.

Hayashi was a young woman in her late teens that had been moblized by the government along with a number of her classmates in an exclusive girl’s school in Nagasaki to work in a munitions factory. She and her classmates were at work August 9, 1945 when the bomb exploded.   They all survived.   Thirty years later she and four of her classmates meet for a reunion at the old school.   "The Empty Can" tells us what happen to the women in the thirty years since the bomb exploded.    The reunion conjures up memories of the day the A Bomb exploded.

The school the girls attended had been turned into a munitions factory. At first the women recall how the blast broke all the window panes and bent the frames. After the war the building went back to being a school

but in the remaining two years of Kyoko’s schooling there were no window panes in the school. The replaced windows are the first thing they talk about. (The women have not seen each other for many years.)

As they enter the school auditorium old memories come to the fore. On October 1, 1945 the school held a memorial service for the students who died in the blast.

They had both survived but many others had died on the floor under the watchful eye of teachers and friends.   Out of a student body of nearly 1300 300 had died  between that day and October 1, 1945. Some had been recruited to work in the munitions factory, some had died in their own homes a few days later.   As the names of each student was read, there was a stirring among the students who survived….The parents of the students who had survived...The parents of the students who had died sat along the three walls.  The parents were in tears before the service began.  The tears turned to sobs and the sobs drifted toward the center of the room.

During the memorial service Oki’s name had been read as one of the dead. She had in fact survived.   She had been terribly hurt in he blast and her parents came to get her and no one heard from her after that so it was assumed she was dead.   She has never been well since that day and is now scheduled thirty years later to have fragments of glass that were embedded in her back that day removed.    There is a huge waiting list for public hospitals at the time to treat bomb survivors.    All of the women live on in fear of radiation sickness which can occur many years after exposure.    Of the three women in "The Empty Can" three have  never married and seemingly have never had a relationship.   (Atomic bomb survivors were very unwanted as spouses as it was felt they could not produce healthy children.)

There are several heart breaking stories relayed by the women as they recall old friends.

They all suddenly recall Kimuko and the empty can she always had with her.

“Remember Kimuko’s empty can? …she put her father and mother’s bones in an empty can and brought it her every day…I remember the girl who came to school every day with the bones of her parents in her school bag.   The girl kept the bones in  lidless can that had been searedred by the flames.   To keep the bones from falling out, she had covered the top with newspaper, and she tied it with red string.  When the girl arrived at her seat she took the empty can, picking it up carefully with both hands, and placed it on the right side of her desk.   At first none of us had known what was in the empty can. And the girl did not show any sign of wanting to tell us, either.   No one questioned her about it.   The love  that could be  seen in the girl's fingertips when she handled the can made us feel all the more reluctant to ask.  One day their new calligraphy teacher, recently discharged from the military and returned to his prewar job, asked her what was in the can she always put on her desk.

“The girl hung her head and held the can on the knees of her work pants. The she began to cry. The teacher
asked her why. “It is my parents. Then she began to cry. The teacher took the can from the girl's hands, and placed it in the center of the desk on the platform.  May your parents rest in peace. Let us have a moment of

silent prayer in their memory”, he said and closed his eyes. After a long silence, the teacher handed the can back to the girl and said, "After this leave it at home.   Your parents will be there waiting for you when.   It is better that way."

“The Empty Can” is only seventeen pages long.   It has more power to move than many works 30 times longer.   We feel we know the people in the story and in some small way can feel how the bomb stole the lives of the living as well as the dead.    "The Empty Can (first published in 1978) is not a bitter work.   It is sadder and wiser for that.

Mel u

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

"The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea" by Yukio Mishima

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima (translated by John Nathan-1965) is a central novel in the post World War II Japanese canon.

The plot of the novel is simple and easily admits of restatement and almost parody. A wealthy young beautiful widow with no man in her life for five years picks up a sailor and brings him home. At first her horrible brat of a 13 year old son likes the sailor then he comes to hate him. The son does some despicable things. The widow’s high fashion friends do not approve and she fears they may be snickering at her behind her back. The widow tries to turn the unpolished but not unthinking sailor into a slick clone of her idea of an English gentleman, even sending him to English lessons. Things do not work out well  in the end.

The characters in the novel at first seem like pure stereotypes. Fusako, who inherited a high fashion gift and clothing store that services the ultra rich:

Among the clientele were wealthy foreigners..a large number of dandies and movie people from Tokyo, and even some buyers from the small retail shops on the Ginza who came down to forage: Rex enjoyed a reputation for uncanny discernment of fine quality, particularly in imported men's wear accessories.

One day a ship arrives carrying a lot of imported goods. Fusako is invited to the ship to take her pick of the items for her shop. She takes her son along with her. The second mate of the ship tours them around and somehow the widow and the sailor ended up spending the night together in her very beautiful house in a high tone neighborhood. (We can already hear the neighbor's maids telling their employers what they saw come out of Fusako's house in the morning.)

At this point I took a look at what seems to be happening in the novel. It seems at first just a clichéd plot line-lonely rich widow with monster brat of a son meets a sailor and trouble follows. Once I thought about the cultural tradition of which the novel is from, I came to see this as very shallow reading of the work. The three main characters in the book, the widow, the sailor and the son are not to be seen as whole characters as they might in a novel from a purely European tradition but as ritualized figures in a Kabuki play. The original readers of this work would, I think, see the characters as meant to be ritually styled stereo types and the predictability of the plot is meant to be reflective of the inevitability of events.

If we accept this, the widow represents a consumer mad Japan that has forgotten its roots and now worships tokens of wealth and beauty with no understanding of what they mean. We see her wear a kimono only to show it off in the bedroom for the sailor. She is a mockery of the values an older world held sacred with regards to proper behavior of women. She represents the decadence of post war Japan. She is portrayed as an intelligent educated business woman without any form of self awareness.

The sailor is a bit more complicated and cast in a bit of a better light.

Whereas most men choose to become sailors because they like the sea, Ryuji had been guided by an antipathy to the land...He found himself in the strange predicament all sailors share: essentially he belongs neither to the land or the sea. There must be a special destiny in store for me; a glittering, special order kind no ordinary man would be permitted.

Ryuji the sailor, among other possible interperations, represents a Japan at sea with itself unrooted, belonging neither in its own past or in the west. The sailor tries to live by old stoic values. He falls prey to a love of comfort and easy sex and allows himself to be dressed up in English tweed suits and sent to English lessons.

The widow begins teach him about the merchandising business. He knows he is losing sight of his old values but he takes the offers life has seemingly made for him.

The widow has a 13 year old son. He is nasty and despicable. You will dislike him for sure. He has a group of same age friends who feel all adults are idiots. The son and his friends are to be seen as the future of Japan in a cultural in which the old values are destroyed.

I do not wish to give away the plot line of the novel. Remember the plot is supposed to be predictable. A predictable plot is essential for the novel to work. There are numerous usages of flower images in this work.

(I talked a bit about flower symbolism in the Japanese novel in my post on "The Crazy Iris" by Mesuji Ibuse.)

There are beautiful descriptions of nature, the sea as well as a highly erotized detailing of the body of the widow. (I should note that one chapter in this work will make cat lovers like me cringe.)

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is a great novel. I saw this once I stepped back from seeing the characters as figures in a novel purely in a Western tradition and instead saw them as beautifully rendered stock figures in a drama echoing back to long ago.

Yukio Misima, like too many Japanese writers, committed suicide. His life story is as strange as any plot line you could find. He got out of military service in WWII by faking the symptom of tuberculosis. He later became involved with a paramilitary group who wanted to restore the emperor to full rule of Japan and reinstate him as a god.  His life story is a fascinating.   

I endorse this book with slight reservations. It is a bit hard not to see the characters as clichés. There is some hard to take cruelty to cats.

I am now starting to strive for an understanding of the post war Japanese novel as a cultural entity. When I first began to read works by Japanese authors I merely tried to understand each work on its own. I accept that in most cases only the best or most popular works are translated.

I will always be grateful to Dolce Bellezza and her Japanese Literature Challenge 3 for the enrichment of my Reading Life that has come to me from her challenge.

My thanks to everyone who has posted a review for the Japanese Literature 3 Challenge

Mel u

Friday, October 16, 2009

"Summer Flower" by Tamiki Hara

"Summer Flower" by Tamiki Hara is the second story included in The Crazy Iris and Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath (edited and introduced by Kenzaburo Oe).
I have already talked a bit about why I was so happy to acquire The Crazy Iris and Other Stories of the Atomic  Aftermath in my post on the lead story, "The Crazy Iris". 

Tamiki Hora was in Hiroshima on the day the atomic bomb was exploded at Hiroshima August 6, 1945.
He survived because he was far enough away from ground zero in the bathroom of a very well constructed house built by his father.  "Summer Flowers" is an account of that day and the days right after the blast.

A lot of us have probably seen movies about apocalyptic seeming events.   Many book bloggers have enjoyed books about life after and during times in which all seems destroyed.   "Summer Flowers" is an eye witness account.  

The  story is set in Hiroshima in August  of 1945.   August 3 was the one year anniversary of the death of the narrator's wife.   He wanted to put some incense sticks on her grave but somehow he feared the whole city would soon be destroyed soon in bombing raids.  

After burning the incense sticks that I had brought I made a bow, I drank out of the well beside the grave..It was on third day after my visit to the grave that the bomb was dropped...My life was saved because I was in the bathroom.

When the bomb explodes he is knocked to the ground by the blast (we do not know how far away he narrator was from ground zero).   At first he loses his sight due to the fall.   His sister finds him and tells him his eyes are bleeding.   He and his family begin to see their first survivors.

Someone rushed in with a bewildered gesture.   His face was smeared in blood. .. K of the factory office appeared on the veranda of the drawing room.   Seeing me, he cried in a sad voice. "I'm hurt! Help me" and dropped down in a heap where he stood.   Blood was oozing from his forehead, and his eyes were glistening with tears.

Here is the first corpse he sees

Even as I looked something infectious seemed to emanate from her lifeless face.    It was the first such face I had seen.   But  I was to see many, many more that were more grotesque.

At first people did not realize what had happened that day.   People felt they they had just had bad luck in a normal bombing raid.   Slowly they began to realize a weapon of a new order of magnitude had been used that day by the Americans.

Everyone had at first thought that just his own house had been hit by a bomb.   But then they went outside and saw it was the same everywhere, they were dumbfounded.   They were also greatly puzzled by the fact that, although the houses and other buildings had all been damaged or destroyed, there didn't seem to be any holes where the bombs had fallen...It was all like some kind of magical trick, my sister said, trembling with terror.

The narrator begins to walk the necropolis where he was born, where his beloved wife is buried.  He observes a common effect of the blast.   Those closer to the blast than him but  enough far away not to die instantly have swollen heads and deformed faces    People with this mark of death upon them have only a few days to suffer.   He comes upon a dispensary set up near a temple to help victims.   The screaming are everywhere but the doctors have no idea how to really help them.   The legs and arms of the victims begin to swell up.

A few yards away from us, two schoolgirls lay groaning for water under a cherry tree, faces burned black...a woman whose face was smoked dried joined them...she stretched out her legs listlessly, oblivious to the dying girls.

The narrator's older brother got a wagon and was rounding up the extended family to leave town.   On the way to pick up a sister they come on the dead body of the brother's son.  

Here is a beautiful passage (I know it may seem jarring to some to find beauty in these descriptions but it is there) describing the narrator's reactions as they leave Hiroshima

Amid the vast silvery expanse of nothingness that lay under the glaring sun, there were the roads, the river, the bridges, and the stark naked, swollen bodies.   The limbs of the corpses, which seem to have become rigid after struggling in their last agony, had a kind of haunting rhythm.  In the scattered electric wires and countless wrecks there was embodied a spasmodic design in nothingness.   The burnt and toppled streetcar and the horse with its huge belly on the ground gave one an impression of a world described by a Dali surrealist painting.

People continue to die long after the blast from its effects.   There is a heart breaking rendition  of the efforts of the narrator to help his good friend find his wife or her body.  

"Summer Flower" is as sad a story as I have ever read.    The beauty of the fashion in which the story is told somehow seems almost wrong.   Tamiki Hara is described  by Oe as the most  outstanding of the writers who survived the bomb blast.      Tamiki felt compelled to wrte about his experience  of the bomb blast as a kind of memorial to his wife.   There was censorship for several years of any writing by Japanese about the war (managed by the occupying forces and their Japanese employees) and his first writings were published in deviance of law.   He studied English literature in college and had a life time fondness for the great 19th century Russians.   "Summer Flowers" was first published in 1947.    In 1951, in protest and horror at the start of the Korean War, he threw himself into the path of a train.     Sadly it appears that "Summer Flowers"  and one other story by Hara are the only part of his work in print in English. Crazy Iris and Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath is worth obtaining just for these two stories.

Mel u

Thursday, October 15, 2009

"Crazy Iris" by Masuji Ibuse

"Crazy Iris" by Masuji Ibuse is  the lead story in The Crazy Iris and Other Stories of the Atomic Age which was edited and introduced by Kenzaburo Oe.  (1985, Grove Press)    All of the short stories in the book were selected by Oe and deal with the effects of the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb experience on August 6, 2009 on those who lived through it.   Several of the authors whose stories are included in the collection were in Hiroshima or near it that day.   Oe also provides an  introduction to the book in which he tells us a little about each writer and their personal background and life history.   I was so excited when I found this book in a mall book store last week.   It really is a perfect book for someone like me who wants to learn about Japanese literature.   The book contains stories by eight different authors considered very talented by Mr Oe.   In most cases he knows them.

The author of "Crazy Iris" Masuji Ibuse was born in Hiroshimi and, like Oe studied French literature and also had a deep interest in the work of Tolstoy.    He was born 1898 and died 1993.   During WWII he served in Singapore in the Japanese Army.   His primary duty as writer for the Singapore newspaper The Straights Times.   He wrote articles in which he  depicted the occupation of the city by the Japanese as very preferable for the people to British rule via a diary he published.   As time went on he stopped publishing his diary as he saw no point to doing it under military supervision.   He also gave lectures on Japanese culture at a Singapore University.    He was an unwilling inductee into the Japanese army and he showed his distaste for military life in his  writings  after the war.   He did not directly experience the blast as he was in Singapore on August 6, 1845.   He never was in combat.

There is a codified language of flowers made use of in Japanese literature and art (and even in tattoos).
Different flowers mean different things.   These meanings would be part of the assumed cultural background of the original readers of "Crazy Iris".    It is common cultural knowledge among Japanese readers and the authors of  the works in this collection would all assume their readers understood it.    This knowledge is not, at least in my case, something I learned as a child in early schooling, so I did a bit of research to discover the possible symbolic meaning of the Iris in Japanese literature.   In the symbolic language of flowers, hanakotoba, the iris stands for strength, vitality, boldness and power.   In rural Japan, where "Crazy Iris" is set, it was considered protection from typhoons and storms and was often planted on roof tops.   It is also considered a symbol of royal warriors.   Like Oe, Masuji Ibuse evokes echos from Western mythology and history in his use of floral images, super imposing two traditions into one or in some cases using the western traditiion as a haunted mirror image of the Japanese.    In ancient Greece Iris was, among other things the goddess of the rainbow and the messenger of the gods.   In ancient Egypt and much of India the iris symbolized resurrection.   In post war Japan the old faiths were destroyed.    In these circumstances in many cultures people seek out roots and myths that predate those that  let them down.    I think the same thing happened to Oe and Ibuse and other Japanese writers.   If we look deep enough into their stories we will see roots in ancient cults and animism.   It is no accident that Yeats and Blake are Oe's English poets.

"Crazy Iris" begin on the morning of August 6, 1945, the day of the first atomic bomb blast.   It is set in a rural town about 100 miles from Hiroshima.    The people of the town had been advised the day before to evacuate as a heavy fire bomb raid from the Americans was expected soon.    The Americans even dropped leaflets telling people to move.   As the story begins our narrator is at a store owned by a friend of his.   Everything but food is very cheap.   The shop keeper tells him might as well sell everything before his store is burned by the bombs.   The people of the town had all been told to take the train to Hiroshima where it was felt they would be safer.   The people are frustrated to hear that all trains going to Hiroshima have been stopped.   At first they do not know what has happened to cause this.   Our narrator goes to visit a dental clinic owned by an old friend of his.

Just a few days before, his only son, who had volunteered as a junior pilot, was killed and the news seemed to have taken the life out of him.   I felt if the air raid siren were to sound this very moment, he would not take shelter but continue to stand there leaning on the table.

Here is how he first heard of the bomb blast:

In fact I did not hear of the destruction of Hiroshima until thirty or forty hours after the event.   We in our village first learned what had happened indirectly from one of the victims who had fled to a neighboring village.  He reported some strange weapon had been exploded  and that from one moment to the next Hiroshima had ceased to exist.

Survivors of the blast began to spread out to neighboring towns.    Many of the people who lived and worked in Hiroshima were from the smaller towns near it and he wanted to return home to look for help and face death among those they knew.

Kobayashi had no idea where he was going...He was aware of  a peculiar pain throughout his body.   Something told him he was going to die.   Whatever happened he must make his way back to his home village and his family!  He managed to get a ride on a truck to Fukuyama and from there he took an army truck hom.  He returned covered with blood.   He immediately visited Dr. Tawa, the village doctor, but the latter had no idea how to treat him.

The residents of Fukuyama do not really understand yet what has happened.   The biggest topic of conversation is "where will it happen next".   Soon they hear of  the surrender.   Our narrator begins to develop stomach problems he will never get rid of right after hears the news.   Many others flood the doctor's office with complaints that seem to have no cause the doctor can find.   Many will have them the rest of their lives.

Life goes on.   Ten months after the surrender our narrator goes to visit Hiroshima to see it for himself.

I remember how impressed I was to find that of all the trees in Hiroshima, the palms alone, though charred and twisted, had withstood the tremendous temperature of a year before and were now putting forth buds.

We see some interesting events unfold that can tell us a lot about life in the immediate post war period.   It was very interesting, for example, to see how Japanese policemen are now treated by the people.   They once were regarded as agents of the Imperial God of Japan and  were greatly feared.   Our narrator was from Tokyo had had moved out when the war started.   (We never learn much about him.  We do not know if he had a family or a role in the war efforts.   I guess he is in his 60s.  We never learn his occupation or economic status.)  

A week after the blast he decides it is time to go back to Tokyo.   He stays with an old friend who lives next to a pond.   One morning he gets up early and sees a body floating in the pond.   The iris are all clustered at one end of the pond.      They all call the police.   Then they notice one of the iris is in bloom.

"Did you know there is an iris in bloom", the old man's voice voice came up.  "It's amazing!   Think of an iris blooming at this time of year!"

We learn the body in the pond was that of just another person driven mad by the blast.   

"I gather she was a half-crazy girl.   Her parents had sent her to work in Hiroshima to work in a factory and she was there the day the atomic bomb exploded"

What is more interesting to our narrator and his friend is what has happened to the iris in the pond

At the mouth of the gulley grew the angular leaves from whose recess emerged the twisted stem with its belated purple flowers.  The petals looked  hard and crinkly..."Do you think they were frightened into bloom?..I have never heard of an Iris flowering this late.   It must have gone crazy! ..When I told Mr Kiuchi this incident he turned to me and said "The iris blooming is crazy and it belongs to a crazy age"

The crazy iris evokes a world in which warrior traditions are destroyed and old folk beliefs about the protective power of flowers are turned into a  graveyard joke.   The atomic bomb somehow seems an inverted iris.   A messenger from long ago and far ahead that will have to be reread into the language of flowers.

There are a lot of interesting details in this twenty page short story.   We get a real feel for how it must have felt to be 100 miles from the blast in a small town in rural Japan.   "Crazy Iris" was first published in 1951.  Masuji Ibuse lived a very long time and became a revered figure in Japanese literary circles.   His best known work was a novel about the effects of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Black Rain.   I will read it soon I hope.     There are other thematic veins that could be mined in this story.   For example, there are clear symbolic meanings in the reference to palm trees as the only surviving trees  These references are very interesting in that they suggest that Ibuse is evoking ancient themes from traditions other than his own.   Maybe the story is in part, as are the stories of Oe I have read, about the recreation of life supporting faiths and myths after the accepted ones are made hollow.   These matters all tie directly into Reading Life questions.

U C L A students are reading, as of September 2014, this post in large numbers.  I hope they will share theirs reaction to this and related stories with us

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

"The Flower Mat" by Sugoro Yamamoto

The Flower Mat by Shugoro Yamamoto (translated by Mihoko Inoue and Eileen Hennessy) was first published in 1948.    This makes it the oldest work I have yet read for  The Japanese Literature Challenge 3 and the first Japanese historical novel I have read.   One of my objectives for the challenge is to read novels of different types so I was happy to come across this work on sale last week.

The Flower Mat is set in 1760s in Japan .    Our central character is Ichi, a daughter of a samuri and also a wife of a samuri.   In this period in Japanese history the samuri were transitioning from warriors to businessmen and governnment functionaries.    Some samuri familes are very rich while others struggle to keep up the apperances that go with their social rank.    Your place in society is
determined by  birth, clientage relationships and codified by tradition.  

Ichi's husband, by an arranged marriage calculated to advantage both clans, is a high ranking official for the Shogun.    Ichi begins to blossom in the marriage.

Since she had become a member of the Kugata family she was enjoying every day;   her life was full of high spiritied cheerful atmosphere, and she could feel her body and her mind were unfettered.   She felt as if something that had not budded while she was still with her parents had suddenly begun to blossom.

Ichi, with her husband's permission of course, decides to return to her family home for a visit.   She senses that something is seriously wrong.

Ichi had detected a subtle change in the atmosphere of this house.   Her mother and brothers had not asked her about the Kugata family and very plainly indicated that they wished to avoid the subject when Ichi was about to tell them about her in-laws.

From this beautifully crafted description of of Ichi's family home we gain a sense of the life of an affluent samuri family

It is said that the Okumura family belonged to the rich families among the roshoku or chief vassals.   Since the Okumuras were samurai, their everyday life was humble, and their wealth could not have been dtetected from their way of life.    But their stone garden, believed to have been copied from the garden of the Ryoan Temple in Kyoto, and the construction of the house, which gave the impression of being palatial, seemed to be indicative of wealth...the same good taste was visible in their paintings and vases for incense, tea, and flowers, and in their furniture.   Every object was carefully chosen, dignified, and expensive, and there was not a single thing which did not have an interesting history...the house had an atmosphere of quiet dignity everywhere and in every object.

Two of the novels I have read for the challenge  are rather sexually explicit,  Snakes and Earring by Hitomi Kanchara  and Real World by Natsuo Kirino.   Neither work comes close to capturing the real passion embodied in the The Flower Mat one cold night when Ichi goes from her room to that of her husband.

How thankful she was later that she had the power in her body to do this at that time!   She had been able to experience a feeling which hitherto had not been awakened in her.   It overwhelmed her with a powerful
ecstasy, with convulsions not unlike those which accompany death, and it penetrated to the very depths of her body and mind.   This sensation was so overwhelming that her whole mental outlook changed.   A great urge of self-confidence, pleasure, and pride swept over her-pride in being Shinzo's wife.

Things begin to change in Ichi's household.   Her husband becomes totally preoccupied with his work and begins for the first time to be away from home for long period.   Ichi, in accord with the marriage customs of her time is not comfortable with asking her husband any questions.   She discovers she is pregnant.   I found the passages that deal with prenatal care and birth routines of samuri wives very interesting.   We are being given  get an insight into the dynamics of 18th century Samuri marriages and family life.

Throughout the first half of The Flower Mat a feeling for forboding disaster is created.    We care about Ichi and her family from the very start.   I would say  there was more suspense in this work than either of the two horror novels I have read for the challenge, Ring by Koji Suzuki or The Crimson Labyrinth by Yusuke Kishi.

I have do not like spoilers in posts on novels so I will say only a bit more about what happens next.  (This is not really a spoiler as once you read the back cover you will know something terrible is going to happen to Ichi.)    Ichi is forced out of her husband's house in the middle of the night.   Her way of life  is completely destroyed and she must find and make her own way in life.   How she does this takes up the second part of the book and beautifully told.

Throughout The Flower Mat  we get a sense of the place natural beauty and art play in the lives of the Samuri families.   There is abundent use of flower images in the novels as is common in Japanese literature.
(Flower symbolism plays a storng role in the Japanese novel.   Their is a traditional meaning to each flower and their mention evokes this.   Sometimes it is used to celebrate tradition some times as kind of iconocraphic shorthand which assumes a certain knowing on the part of the reader.   Some times images are used  in a new way such as the floweristic references to the A Bomb blast in the works of many Japanese writers.  This is done with great genius in Kenzaburo Oe's The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears.)

The Flower Mart is a wonderful novel.   It is a pure delight to read and we learn a lot about 18th Century Samuri family life along the way.   It contains wonderful descriptions of nature, some of which seem evocative of Animistic traditions from a much more ancient period of Japanese history.   We see how the death of a child is dealt with emotionally.    The book makes us think about the nature of marriage.   We see the Samuri in transition from fuedal lords and warriors to business men and government administrators. 

I really enjoyed this novel.   There are a lot of plot lines I have not talked about as I do not like to reveal too much about plots.    I will say the ending of the book was very gratifying.   This is a beautiful story, told by a writer who respects the intelligence of his readers.    I endorse it without reservation.