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.
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.