This is a useful book explaining what makes Japanese art, literature, and philosophy unique. Donald Richie has lived in Japan since the end of World WThis is a useful book explaining what makes Japanese art, literature, and philosophy unique. Donald Richie has lived in Japan since the end of World War II and is responsible for a series of illuminating works, including an early survey on Japanese film. A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics is a short work with large implications:
Many people everywhere spend their whole lives trying to escape the thought that one day they and all of theirs will be no more. Only a few poets look at the fact, and only the japanese, I believe, celebrate it.
This commemoration takes many forms but the most common might be looking into a mirror, seeing one more gray hair, discerning one more wrinkle, and then saying to oneself: "Good, all is well with the word -- things are proceeding as they must."
The book ends with a useful glossary and an exhaustive bibliography....more
This early novelette by Yasushi Inoue was published shortly after the conclusion of the Second World War. It tells the tale of the shattering effect oThis early novelette by Yasushi Inoue was published shortly after the conclusion of the Second World War. It tells the tale of the shattering effect on three lives of an adulterous affair that runs for more than ten years. The Hunting Gun is published by Pushkin Press in an attractive, small pocket sized format that makes for a fast read.
The book consists mostly of a framing story and three letters, first by the daughter Shoko; the second by Aunt Misugi, the legitimate wife of the adulterer Misuki Josuke; and the last by Saiko, the adulteress, who dies at the beginning of the story. The letters get progressively more interesting, until the one by Saiko is a poignant study in regret.
I have always loved Inoue's work, and am gratified to se he was so good at the beginning of his career....more
Around the same time that William Faulkner was inventing his mythical Yoknapatawpha County, many thousands of miles away, Indian author R.K. Narayan wAround the same time that William Faulkner was inventing his mythical Yoknapatawpha County, many thousands of miles away, Indian author R.K. Narayan was doing the same thing in his novels set in a small city named Malgudi in the southern State of Tamil Nadu.
Today, I read The Bachelor of Arts (1937), set in an India that was still under British control. We see his hero Chandran struggle to get his college degree, then fail spectacularly in trying to marry a local beauty named Malathi. He goes off the rails after this failure and spends many months as a holy man wandering around South India. Finally, he returns to Malgudi, finds a good job, and finds an even more beautiful bride in Susila.
I have read about eight of Narayan's Malgudi novels and find him continuing to grow on me. This is the second volume in a trilogy that began with Swami and Friends and ended with The English Teacher, which I have yet to read. Although it is called a trilogy, the characters in each novel are different from one another.
It was none other than Graham Greene who introduced Narayan to the world by finding a publisher for his first four novels. Narayan wrote in English His books are so good that he deserves to be considered one of the greatest 20th century novelists in English. ...more
This is another of Shambala's incredibly useful vade mecums on the subject of Asian religion, in this case a compendium of teachings by Tibetan sagesThis is another of Shambala's incredibly useful vade mecums on the subject of Asian religion, in this case a compendium of teachings by Tibetan sages ranging from Naropa to the present Dalai Lama.
We tend to read too many self-help books that are sheer garbage and unrealistic wish-fulfillment. On the other hand, The Pocket Tibetan Buddhism Reader is full of insights such as:
We operate under the illusion that the relative truth is something solid and truly existent, but this is the definition of delusion. If we look carefully, we find that the world is like a rainbow: vivid and colordul, but without any solid existence.
Or take this poem by Naropa in the 11th century on the Twelve Similes Describing the Phenomenal World:
A magic spell, a dream, a gleam before the yes, A reflection, lightning, an echo, a rainbow, Moonlight upon water, cloud-land, dimness Before the eyes, fog, and apparitions; These are the twelve similes of the phenomenal.
I had read the main story, "Life of a Counterfeiter," in another edition and remember loving it. A man is commissioned to write the biography of a belI had read the main story, "Life of a Counterfeiter," in another edition and remember loving it. A man is commissioned to write the biography of a beloved painter named Onuki Keigaku, but over the year gets sidetracked by the life of his onetime friend, Hara Hosen, who was caught counterfeiting Onuki's work. The narrator follows the threads that remain to Hara's life, and discovers that he ended his life making illegal fireworks. He blew off three of his fingers in an accident with gunpowder, and his wife separated from him around this time. The narrator concludes:
I have set down what I know of the counterfeiter Hara Hosen. Nothing but fragmentary stories heard from others. And yet, somewhere along the way, as I strung these pieces together, I had come to hold in my mind an image of this counterfeiter's sixty-seven-year life as a sort of flow -- a dark and frigid stream. There was no rhyme or rhythm to that painful surging, the dark and turbid motion of some essence the man known as Hara Hosen carried within him from the moment of his birth that rendered it impossible for him to live otherwise than he did. Painful, yes, but the pain was matched by the peculiar sadness of our karma, so that whenever I found myself reflecting upon the sorrows of human life I would remember that thin, swarthy man with his weak and gloomy air -- this is how I imagined Hara Hosen now -- softly drawing his counterfeiter's brush across a sheet of paper, hiding what he was doing from his wife, or slipping out so she wouldn't find him twisting gunpowder up in pieces of paper and setting them on fire.
This litle collection by the Pushkin Press of three of Yasushi Inoue's stories concentrate on the author's great interlocking themes of memory, history, and nostalgia. The other stories -- "Reeds" and "Mr. Goodall's Gloves" -- are both searches in the narrator's past of names and events which are only partially remembered.
Life of a Counterfeiter is a good place to start reading Inoue. But remember, other great works are also worth trying: Shirobamba, Lou-Lan, and The Samurai Banner of Furin Kazan. There is a particular sympathetic sadness, a mono no aware, of reading Inoue's work. It is not an unpleasant feeling....more
Question: What could be worse than the horrors of the Second World War? Answer: Its aftermath.
It is 1947, and war hero Major Aldred Leith is in JapanQuestion: What could be worse than the horrors of the Second World War? Answer: Its aftermath.
It is 1947, and war hero Major Aldred Leith is in Japan doing research on a book. He stays in a compound under two despicable fellow Aussies named Driscoll, husband and wife. Altogether different from their parents are their two "changeling" children, Benedict and Helen. The first is brilliant, but deathly ill; and his sister is almost always by his side. She is fifteen years old, but Aldred and she manage to fall in love.
They are separated by the parents, who take her off to New Zealand, and send the son to a medical specialist in California.
In the meantime, Aldred goes to England to pick up various threads in his life, such as his mother, his former lover, and a man who knew Helen when she was younger.
Throughout The Great Fire -- a reference to the war -- we see scores of characters, most of them fellow Aussies, who are trying to recover their lives, like one nameless character:
He got off at a country crossroad. Helen, at her bleared window, watched in walk away on a dirt track, smiling abstractedly and slightly swinging a string bag of small packages wrapped in newsprint. Even so, there was the antipodean touch of desolation: the path indistinguishable from all others, the wayside leaves flanneled with dust, the net bag. The walking into oblivion.
Shirley Hazzard's book entranced me during a difficult time in my own life, when I went through he roughest part of tax season with a broken shoulder and considerable pain.
Now, for the first time, I understand why, on my travels, I meet so many Australians and new Zealanders. Its that "antipodean touch of desolation," I suppose, that isolation from the rest of the world that must have seemed so daunting after that conflagration of war....more
Shūsaku Endō is that rarity: a Japanese Catholic -- but with a difference. In Deep River, he looks at the members of a Japanese tour group that visitsShūsaku Endō is that rarity: a Japanese Catholic -- but with a difference. In Deep River, he looks at the members of a Japanese tour group that visits North India. The beginning of the book takes most of the characters in turn, showing how there is some lack in their lives that they hope to remedy by the side of the Ganges.
In the end, the various members of the group take baby steps. Only Ohtsu, a renegade Catholic priest that one of the group knew in Japan, has found himself. Dressed in a dhoti, he carries the dying to the ghats along the river where there bodies will be burned.
I found Deep River to be a sincere attempt to study the need for a spiritual dimension in this life, but Endo takes a difficult route to this end and comes up wanting. Still, I like Endo and I like his book.
R. K. Narayan is a Tamil writer who, like Faulkner, created his own little world, but in South India: The town of Malgudi. Swami and Friends is the fiR. K. Narayan is a Tamil writer who, like Faulkner, created his own little world, but in South India: The town of Malgudi. Swami and Friends is the first of his novels to be published, supposedly with the help of Graham Greene, who saw in him a master storyteller.
And so he is. Swami and Friends is a story of childhood, of a young boy named Swaminathan and his good friends Mani and Rajam and their various run-ins with each other and the school administration. Eventually, they found a cricket club which falls apart when Swaminathan runs away from home, and Rajam and his family are transferred to another city.
This is a sweet story which, like all of Narayan's tales, draws the reader in and makes him feel like a dhoti-wearing citizen of good standing in the wonderful world of Malgudi....more
Years ago, I had read Anita Desai's Baumgartner's Bombay and enjoyed it immensely. Why I have waited some quarter of a century before taking on anotheYears ago, I had read Anita Desai's Baumgartner's Bombay and enjoyed it immensely. Why I have waited some quarter of a century before taking on another of her works, I do not understand or condone. The Artist of Disappearance is the latest of her fictions in a long and illustrious career. It consists of three novellas entitled "The Museum of Final Journeys," "Translator Translated," and "The Artist of Disappearance."
In many ways, Desai reminds me of Joseph Conrad, whose background as a Pole and a Englishman (and a sea captain) enabled him to see well behind the self-imposed borders that otherwise hamper so many writers. Hers is a mixed German-Bengali background, which curiously gives her a unique insight into the strange Anglo-Indian world that, while dying out, still is redolent with repercussions on the Subcontinent.
The first story tells of a young Anglo-Indian administrator's visit to a rotting old museum at the importunate request of its curator, and how what he found there changed him forever.
"Translator Translated" is the ultimate Traduttore, traditore! tale in which a teacher who is a native speaker of the vanishing Oriya language (India has dozens of languages within its borders) talks a publisher friend into translating a book of short stories into English by a writer named Suvarna Devi. All goes well until the translator is embarked on translating Devi's new novel that she runs into seemingly insuperable difficulties.
"The Artist of Disappearance" is Ravi, the adopted son of a feckless couple who goes off elsewhere to die, leaving him nothing. Ravi becomes a child of the wild -- until a Delhi film crew comes to town to document the environmental degradation wrought by minors and timber-cutters. They come across Ravi's garden in the wild. But Ravi is, very deliberately, nowhere to be found. It's like the old rope trick.
I hope I will read some more Desai soon. She is deserving, and her writing is limpid and wise. ...more
This is the first Japanese mystery novel I have read, and it is quite different from the Occidental variety. For one thing, the main character for theThis is the first Japanese mystery novel I have read, and it is quite different from the Occidental variety. For one thing, the main character for the first hundred pages is arrested for murder, and thereafter the action shifts to an investigating prosecutor named Kirishima, the hero of a number of Akimitsu Takagi's mysteries.
Ostensibly, The Informer is about a former stockbroker Shigeo Segawa who got caught during a stock downturn doing some illegal trades. He takes up with a shadowy company called Shinwa Trading, which is actually an industrial espionage firm run by a young man named Mikio Sakai. He is assigned to investigate a chemical firm run by the husband of his former girlfriend. Then he is murdered. And Miss Yamaguchi, who is Shigeo's alibi, is also killed. All indications point to Shigeo, who is pulled in and interrogated.
In the meantime, Kirishima and his main police inspector contact, Ishida, begin to suspect that there is more going on then they suspected. Then the wife of the murdered industrial boss, Shigeo's ex-girlfriend, commits suicide -- and all heck breaks loose.
This is an exciting novel. The only problem is my unfamiliarity with Japanese names, an unusual number of which begin with the letter "K." I frequently found myself backtracking to refresh my memory who is Toshiko or Kazumi or Kitano. Still, it didn't detract from Takagi's expert plotting and characterizations. Unfortunately, the author died in 1995; and only three of his mysteries, including this one, have been translated into English. It makes me wonder what I am missing....more
I had heard of Rabindranath Tagore for many years, but suspected that his reputation was of the bubble variety -- until I read Quartet. Now I suddenlyI had heard of Rabindranath Tagore for many years, but suspected that his reputation was of the bubble variety -- until I read Quartet. Now I suddenly feel as if I had missed something really precious for all those years. In a mere matter of 78 pages, Tagore takes up the subject how how spirituality interfaces with daily life. We have four main characters: the kindly atheist Jagmohan, his nephew Sachish (who follows his uncle until he becomes a sannyasi, one who has renounced the world), the supremely grounded young widow Damini, and the narrator Sribilash.
The name Quartet comes from the interaction of these four characters. The alternate title of the book is Chaturanga, which is the ancient Hindu game from which chess was derived. In a way, the book is a chess match between the spiritual life and the life of the "householder" (that is, married life). Who wins? No one does: The result is a stalemate.
Each of the four chapters is approximately twenty pages in length, and each is a small masterpiece in its own right.
The end of what I call The Januarius had finally come. It is one of my strange, compulsive little rituals: During the month of January, I read only auThe end of what I call The Januarius had finally come. It is one of my strange, compulsive little rituals: During the month of January, I read only authors I have never read before, Since New Year’s Day, I have read Sara Wheeler on Chile, Livy’s Early History of Rome, Herta Müller’s The Passport, Andrei Gelasimov’s Thirst, W. G. Sebald’s Vertigo (no relation to the movie), Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling, The Loeb Classical Library Reader, Deszö Kosztolányi’s Skylark, Curzio Malaparte’s The Skin, Christopher Langley’s Lone Pine, and now Arun Kolatkar’s slim book of verse in English entitled Jejuri.
That’s eleven books in all, tied together only by the fact that all the authors were new to me (except perhaps The Loeb Classical Library Reader, which contained excerpts of mostly familiar Greek and Roman classics).
Jejuri is perhaps the strangest of all. It is a poem cycle, originally written in English, by an Indian poet from Maharashtra. It is a coherent sequence which begins with the poet’s arrival in the pilgrimage city of Jejuri by bus, his desultory and not altogether devout visits to the local shrines and what he saw there, and finally his retreat by train—except we leave him at the station wondering when the train will arrive.
Here is one of my favorites:
what is god and what is stone the dividing line if it exists is very thin at jejuri and every other stone is god or his cousin
there is no crop other than god and god is harvested here around the year and round the clock out of the bad earth and the hard rock
that giant hunk of rock the size of a bedroom is khandoba’s wife turned to stone
that crack that runs across is the scar from his broadsword he struck her down with once in a fit of rage
scratch a rock and a legend springs
Khandoba is the main God of Jejuri.
I am always amazed at how many excellent writers and poets there are in India who can write English with the best of them. Coming to mind are Salman Rushdie, G. V. Desani, and R. K. Narayan, who is probably my favorite.
It is reassuring to know that, even if Europe and America are taken over by drooling idiots, there will be those who can write elegant English from the other side of the world....more
This is a sad little collection containing one novella entitled The Waves and five short stories -- all taking place during the Cultural Revolution wiThis is a sad little collection containing one novella entitled The Waves and five short stories -- all taking place during the Cultural Revolution with its Red Guard disturbances in which so millions of Chinese lost their lives and so many families were disturbed so that young city-dwellers would work on collective farms or factories in distant parts of the country. In the first story, "In the Ruins," a professor contemplates suicide and begins to muse as he sees some old ruins:
Standing before him was China's history, the history of the last decades, or even of the last centuries or millenia. The endless arrogance and revolt, dissipation and vice; the rivers of blood and mountains of bones; the sumptuous yet desolate cities, palaces, and tombs; the thousands upon thousands of horses and soldiers mirrored against the huge canopy of the heavens; the axe on the execution block, dripping with blood; the sundial with its shadow revolving around the glossy stone slab; the thread-bound hand-copied books piled in dusty secret rooms; the long, mournful sound of the night watchman beating his wooden rattle ... all these together formed those desolate ruins.
The author, Bei Dao, tried hard to convey his image, but either because it was such a bleak one, or because the translator failed to make the story meaningful to an occidental such as myself, I was always just on the point of getting involved, but never was able to make the jump.
China scholar Jonathan D. Spence spoke highly of this book in The New York Times Book Review and of Bonnie S. MacDougall and Susette Tennent Cooke's translation for this New Directions edition. In fact, that is why I bought this book. I am still pleased that I read Waves, primarily because there is so little of merit that comes down to us from this period; and Bei Dao writes a hauntingly sad book about lost lives. But his technical skills may not be up to multiple viewpoints in a 100-page novella, as, I think, few authors are.
This collection does make me wonder whether much of the news coverage about the new China, flush with the wealth of the West, still has a back story behind all the prosperity. When I hear of mass suicides of workers who jump out of the windows of their iPod factory dormitories, I wonder how much China has really succeeded where it counts the most, in the hearts of its people....more