Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Sawako Ariyoshi : The River Ki

This novel is almost the exact opposite of "After Dark" , which I read last month.

Instead of covering a single evening, this novel spans over 60 years (c. 1900 - 1960), which, of course, coincides with Japan's remarkable entry into modern geo-politics, including her victory over the Russian Navy in 1905, her invasion of China, and finally her defeat and occupation by the United States.

And instead of presenting isolated individuals - this novel presents three generations of a traditional family and how it changed in the modern world.

It's not a very long book. Perhaps the author had dreamed up several books worth of narrative, and then narrowed it way down.

The most detailed episode occurs at the end, as the major character, Hana, lies on her death bed and thinks about her family --- a scene that feels so real, the author may well have met such a lady at such a moment, and then written the rest of the book as back-story.

And basically that back story is the end of family, land based feudal society, for which Hana exemplifies the last and best of the grand dames: skilled in the aesthetic arts of koto and tea ceremony, while also proficient in classical Japanese literature and sensitive to the beauties of Kimono and ceramics; solictitous of her mother-in-law, supportive of her husband, and demanding of her children.

The perfect Japanese lady of a certain high status.

(BTW - regarding her support for her husband's career -- we're only shown one example - how she arranges for her brother-in-law, Kosaku, to marry the house maid he has gotten pregnant, and thus avoid scandal)

And one might note that unlike ideal European ladies of similar status, charity is not one her noble activitees. The tenant farmers in her village like her because she's not distant. And there is that episode where she entertains young peasant-class soldiers before they go off to war. But she doesn't help the poor and the sick, the way that ideal Christian ladies should.

(note: two of her favorite classics were the tales of Genji and the Heiki , both of which I have read and enjoyed. But it also mentions the last volume of "The Great Mirror" -- so I've had to order that series, and will begin reading it this month)

It's just a wild guess, but I'm guessing that the characters in this book were drawn from the author's family, and since it was written in 1960, the author would have been Hanako ( who, like the author, was taken by her parents to Java). So Hana may have been an idealized version of her grandmother.

Since the narrative relates how some care was taken in choosing Hana's husband, Keisaku, from among dozens of high-class applicants)-- we may assume that the one chosen is also an ideal person in his time, place, and social status -- i.e. the landed gentry.

He is a strong advocate for the economic health of his rural district -- joins all the relevant associations -- and is eventually elected to the national assembly.

He is also trying to be a modern man -- and he effectively disconnects the family from its high feudal status by giving much of its land to his younger brother, Kosaku, and selling the rest of it to finance his political campaigns.

And yet -- he is completely outside the major drama of national Japanese politics: fascism, militarization, and empire. He neither supports nor opposes it.

Indeed, nobody in this story either supports or opposes it; but there are two characters, Kosaku and Hanako's father, Harumi Eiji, who predict Japan's defeat.

The central story here is the historical change that occurs in just one generation. Fumio is as devoted to being modern as Hana, her mother, was to being the perfect wife.

Regrettfully, Fumio has no sense of that aesthetic which was so important to her mother, and she seems to look to magazines to tell her how things are supposed to be modern. And, unlike her mother, Fumio chooses her own husband in what might be called a love match.

Perhaps more importantly, she and her daughter are no longer separated from their mother's family the way that Hana had been when Hana got married and joined the family of her husband. So when the war forces families to send their children to safety, they often end up in the homes of the mother's relatives.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Hisao Kimura : Japanese Agent in Tibet

A nice complement to "7 Years in Tibet" written 35 years later by a Japanese scholar who entered Tibet from the northeast at the same time that Heinrich Harrer was hiking toward Lhasa from the southwest.

But this is clearly the voice of an older man who is reflecting upon his life and times, and lacks the detail, immediacy and excitement of Harrer's account.

And Kimura never got to visit Potala palace and meet the Dalai Lama.

Instead, he moves about in the netherworld of expatriots living in Tibet or right across the border.

His general picture of the poverty and lawless chaos of the countryside is the same as Harrer's- and he recounts the motto of migrant Khapas as "Murder men or starve" - along with an injunction to go on religious pilgrimage.

Curiously, his introduction to this world was through something like a Japanese "Peace Corps" that put young Japanese men into peripheral, tribal areas in the hopes that eventually they would help the empire - and Hisao turned out to have a gift for learning languages to the point where he could pass as Mongolian. (it was only his Japanese body language that would later allow someone to see through his disguise)

And just like Heinrich, he had zero interest in Buddhism, even though he was immersed in that culture, was required to chant some sutras as part of his disguise, his Mongolian traveling companion had been trained as a monk, and his only Japanese contact, N. , was a serious novice.

Mostly, you would have to call him an opportunist - but that seems quite appropriate - given his situation as a draft-age young man in 1940 Japan. Most of his generation expected to die - and he certainly came close enough wandering through the mountains and deserts of southwestern China - where all of the various factions: Moslem, Chinese nationalist, bandits etc had one thing in common: hatred for the Japanese.

It's no wonder that when this talented polyglot finally had the opportunity to speak Japanese 9 years later, he couldn't, and had to communicate by writing.

One unusual feature of his story is that includes so many names that can be found on Wikipedia -- i.e. people who got a reputation as teachers or scholars of Tibetan Buddhism or Himalayan affairs, who would later publish books and often end up in America. He sold a pistol to Heinrich Harrer, and coincidentally ran into Lowell Thomas while hiking just over the border, and got described in "Out of this World" as a Chinese trader who spoke fluent English.

His discussion of important teachers whom he met has made this book of some importance to the history of Buddhism, and this website gives a much better summary of his travels than I do.

Perhaps Kimura is just name-dropping, since he would eventually become a scholar of Central Asian culture - but it also might honestly indicate just how small this international community of Tibetan-philes was back in the 1940's. And as a multi-linguist, mastering Tibetan as well as English and Mongolian, he would have fit right in.

Especially since, like Harrer, he had no family or career to distract him.

It's also interesting how he made a living over that time period - eventually becoming an importer/exporter/smuggler carrying things back and forth between northern India and Lhasa. The only requirement for such a job was good health and lack of fear. (On time he and his companion were waylaid by two bandits, but managed to escape since one bandit had the rifle, but the other was carrying the cartridges.)

Another charming episode was when he was introduced to an old Tibetan monk with whom he had to share a cabin - and who soon asked, with a smile, "Do you want it from the front or the back?"

And it's also charming how many people offer to help this complete stranger.

Kimura repeatedly asks "why don't Tibetans do more to protect their independance?"

But presumably, like himself, everyone else is just trying to survive.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

After Dark - by Haruki Murakami

Replace those two chatting adults seen above with a couple of scruffy college kids, and I think you've got the setting for this story by a thoroughly Japanese author immersed in American pop culture.

Beginning with Erich Segal's "Love Story", for which this is a variation that focuses on the moments when two lonely souls find each other, rather than on whatever consequences may follow.

Because this is a story that only covers precisely 6 hours and 56 minutes in the wee hours of a single night.

And that kind of precision is felt everywhere in this story - that feels more like a screenplay than a novel. (just like the Segal book)

Immersed in a high-tech, impersonal world, and surrounded by a variety of people who have failed, our two young protagonists can look forward to productive lives of personal fulfillment -- despite their rocky backgrounds -- due to their honesty, kindness, and persistence.

And their conventionality - as the young man is about to ditch his interest in music to study law, and the young woman is mastering a foreign language -- not just any foreign language -- but Chinese, which is the foundation of Japanese high culture, as well as the booming economic giant of this decade.

(BTW -- the Segal book even gets mentioned in this narrative - though the characters seem to have forgotten its tragic ending)

(BTW II - the relationship between Japan and China is further explored by introducing us to a Chinese prostitute who is beaten and robbed by a rather heartless Japanese techie/aesthete. But to make it a bit more complicated -- the Chinese pimp is even crueler - and as another character says, Chinese gangsters make their Japanese colleagues look like saints)

The story is framed by a bird's view of the city as a kind of gigantic creature, with it's human inhabitants as functioning parts of an organic whole -- a notion which seems distinctly Japanese - and would not fit the Chinese or Indian fiction I've been reading.