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Archive for January, 2021

I have wanted to read Sei Shōnagon’sThe Pillow Book‘ ever since I discovered it. I picked it up recently and read it slowly and finished reading it yesterday.

Sei Shōnagon lived around a thousand years back in the Japan of the Heian era. She served the Japanese empress of that time. One day someone got the empress a big bundle of paper as a gift and the empress gave it to Shōnagon, and Shōnagon decided to write on it, recounting anecdotes and sharing experiences and her thoughts on different topics. The book is like a diary and shows a detailed description of court life of those times. In addition to anecdotes and experiences and stories, the book has lists. Lots of lists. There are different kinds of lists in the book. Some are simple, like lists of mountains, rivers, gardens, forests. They are deceptively simple though. Because they all have poetic associations to classical Japanese and Chinese poetry or famous stories. The second kind of list is descriptive. In those lists, Shōnagon shares things that bring joy, that are beautiful, that are annoying. These lists are charming and make us smile and we can relate to them even after a thousand years from the time they were written. Some of the lists describe beautiful experiences and images and scenes. These lists are beautiful, and they bring a lot of joy and delight if we read them slowly and linger on. This third kind of list was my favourite. I will share some excerpts here from this kind of list.

“A beautifully arranged brazier with fire burning, its rim swept clean of ash, the firelight revealing the painting on its inner surface, is a most delightful sight.”

“Delightful too to hear the soft sound of fire tongs being gently pushed into the ash of the brazier, and sense from this the presence of someone who isn’t yet asleep.”

“It’s also very elegant the way, when the gentlewomen are gathered seated here and there in the room talking, you hear the silk rustle of people as they leave or enter and, though it’s only a soft sound, you can guess who each one would be.”

“Late that night, I woke and was deeply moved at the sight of the moonlight shining in through a window and casting its white light over the bedclothes of the sleeping forms around me. This is precisely the sort of moment when people compose poems.”

“The setting sun. Just after it’s set, it’s very moving to see how a reddish light lingers along the rim of the mountains, with pale yellow clouds trailing in the sky above.”

“Endearingly lovely things – A sparrow coming fluttering down to the nest when her babies are cheeping for her.”

There are pages and pages of these beautiful, soft, delicate images and they give us a lot of pleasure. I loved reading them and dreaming about them.

You can find more of these charming images in my previous post here.

Sei Shōnagon lived at around the same time as Murasaki Shikibu, who wrote ‘The Tale of Genji‘. There seems to be some kind of rivalry between the admirers of Shōnagon and Shikibu since the old times. I am not sure why. They served rival empresses and maybe that was one reason. Shikibu appears to have criticized Shōnagon in her own diary – unfairly, in my opinion. Having attempted to read ‘The Tale of Genji‘ earlier, and now having read ‘The Pillow Book‘, I can now say that I am firmly on Team Shōnagon 😊

When I read Sei Shōnagon’s book, I remembered one of my favourite lines by one of my favourite writers Yoshida Kenko – “It is a most wonderful comfort to sit alone beneath a lamp, book spread before you, and commune with someone from the past whom you have never met.” It was wonderful to meet Sei Shōnagon who lived a thousand years back, and hear her voice through this delightful book. When I read the last line – “That seems to have been the moment when this book first became known – or so it is written” – I felt sad that our conversation was over.

Have you read ‘The Pillow Book‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Haiku poems years back and have been reading them off and on. One of the great things about haiku is its short length, its brevity. No long meanderings, it is over before we know it. This feature of the haiku has also made it challenging for readers like me. Because there is so much packed in those short three lines, most of the meaning and beauty is lost if one is not aware of what the poet is referring to, whether it is Japanese culture or history or geography. Also, typically the last line or the last word in the haiku summarizes the whole poem or elevates it to a new plane by adding a whole new dimension to the meaning. If we can’t recognize what that last line or word says, we can’t experience the beauty and the profound insight of the haiku. For something which is so short and looks deceptively simple, the haiku turns out to have a lot of hidden depth. And the reason for all this complexity lies in its short length, its brevity. So in a sense this short length is a double-edged sword. It is like packing too many things in a small suitcase which makes it difficult to close. In the haiku’s case, the suitcase is beautifully and elegantly closed by the poet, but it resists the reader’s attempt to open it and it refuses to reveal its secrets. I have always wondered since whether there were longer forms of Japanese poetry. I love the beauty of Japanese literature and the Japanese style of literary aesthetics and I wanted to experience the beauty and joy of Japanese poetry in a more accessible way. Then I discovered that there was a longer poetic form called Tanka. I hoped to explore Tanka poetry some day and see whether I’ll have better luck here.

Why all this rambling about Japanese poetic forms? I’ll come to it now.

I discovered ‘The Ink Dark Moon : Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu‘ recently. It featured two women poets from the Heian era (around 1000 years back) and I wanted to read it. When I got it yesterday and started reading the introduction, I discovered that the poems featured were written in the tanka style. I was so excited! I was finally going to read some tanka poetry!

The Heian era saw an explosion of literary creativity in Japan. It was the time when many women poets and writers burst out on the literary scene. Some people say that it was the era which saw the greatest concentration of women poets and writers in ancient or medieval times, anywhere in the world. It was the time the world’s first novel ‘The Tale of Genji’ was written by the great Murasaki Shikibu. It was also the time when the two great poets Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu wrote their poems.

This book has around 160 poems. Around one-fourth of them are by Ono no Komachi. The rest are by Izumi Shikibu. Most of the poems are about love, longing, desire, loss. Some of them are about other topics.

The poems in the book are written in tanka style. How does it differ from the haiku? I am sure there are poetic and technical differences between the two forms, like the number of syllables in the poem and the poetic form and meter used. But these don’t really matter to us much. The thing which is easily visible to lay-readers like me is this. While the haiku has three lines, the tanka has five. This isn’t much, as I was expecting a sonnet-style fourteen lines. But those two extra lines, though they don’t seem to be much, change the poem in a fundamental way. They add a lot of breathing space, in which the poem can stretch itself, relax, and reveal its glorious beauty to us. And it happens in page after page, poem after poem. The poems are beautiful, sad, poignant, heartbreaking, insightful, philosophical. The words are soft, the images are delicate. I read them and I laughed and I cried. Mostly cried, because of what the poem said. I think tanka is my Japanese poetic form, my precious. I love it.

I loved the poems of both Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu. At one point, I thought that I could differentiate between their styles, and then I couldn’t. It didn’t matter. They are both wonderful poets. The book has an informative introduction to the life and work of the two poets. It also has an essay at the end, ‘On Japanese Poetry and the Process of Translation‘, by one of the translators, Jane Hirshfield. Hirshfield’s essay reveals a deep scholarship, a passion for Japanese poetry, a delicate poetic sensibility, a lightness of touch. It is one of the most beautiful essays on poetry and translation that I have ever read. I fell in love with Jane Hirshfield after I read that. I discovered that she was a poet herself (who else but a poet can write so beautifully?) and I went and ordered two of her books. I can’t wait to read them. I already know that she is going to become one of my favourite writers and poets.

This is early days yet, but I think I can safely say that this is one of my favourite books of the year and one of my favourite poetry collections ever. It is a beautiful book to read on a winter evening, sitting in front of the fire, with your beloved sitting next to you, with both of you taking turns to read the poems aloud to each other and taking pleasure in listening to each other’s voice, while experiencing the beauty of the poems. And if your beloved is not around and is away, you can read a poem, close your eyes, let the poem wash over you and dream of your beloved.

I’m sharing some of my favourite poems from the book so that you can experience their beauty yourself.

Poems by Ono no Komachi

Poems by Izumi Shikibu

Have you read ‘The Ink Dark Moon‘? What do you think about it? Did you like the poems above? Which of the above poems is your favourite?

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I started reading Sei Shōnagon’s classic ‘The Pillow Book‘. Wanted to share some of my favourite excerpts from the little I read. They are so charming that I couldn’t resist 😊

Sei Shōnagon includes descriptive lists in her book.

Under ‘Infuriating Things’, she includes these –

• A guest who arrives when you have something urgent to do, and stays talking for ages. If it’s someone you don’t have much respect for, you can simply send them away and tell them to come back later, but if it’s a person with whom you feel you must stand on ceremony, it’s an infuriating situation.

• You’ve just settled sleepily into bed when a mosquito announces itself with that thin little wail, and starts flying around your face. It’s horrible how you can feel the soft wind of its tiny wings.

• Someone who butts in when you’re talking and smugly provides the ending herself.

• I hate it when, either at home or at the palace, someone comes calling whom you’d rather not see and you pretend to be asleep, but then a well-meaning member of the household comes along and shakes you awake with a look of disapproval at how you’ve dozed off.

• And I hate people who don’t close a door that they’ve opened to go in or out.

This made me laugh 😁

Under ‘Things that make your heart beat fast’, she includes this –

• To wash your hair, apply your makeup and put on clothes that are well scented with incense. Even if you’re somewhere where no one special will see you, you still feel a heady sense of pleasure inside.

In ‘Things that make me feel nostalgic’, she includes these –

• Coming across a torn scrap of lavender- or grape-coloured fabric crumpled between the pages of a bound book.

• On a rainy day when time hangs heavy, searching out an old letter that touched you deeply at the time you received it.

I found the last one very beautiful.

Loving these lists!

Did you like them?

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I discovered ‘Showa : A History of Japan‘ by Shigeru Mizuki last year. I have coveted it since then 😊 Finally last week I took the plunge and ordered it and got the final volume a few days back.

Mizuki’s book is a 4-volume nonfiction manga comic. It describes the history of the Showa era in Japan starting from 1926 when Emperor Hirohito was crowned and it continues till 1989 which was the end of the Showa era. So it gives a significant account of 20th century history through a Japanese point of view. Each volume has an introduction, a different one, and the artwork is exquisite.

In the best manga tradition, I have put the volumes in the picture in the classic manga order. You have to start with the book on the top right and then proceed to the top left and go counterclockwise to the bottom left and then bottom right, to view the covers in sequence 😊

I started reading the first part ‘Showa 1926 – 1939 : A History of Japan‘ as soon as I got it a few days back. This first part of the 4-part book covers the history of Japan from the beginning of the Showa era in 1926 till the beginning of the Second World War.

The book has two strands of stories which are woven together. The first is the history of Japan as the title indicates. The second is the author’s own memoir. So we get to see the Japan of that era through both the big and the everyday – the major political and social happenings and things which are considered news, and the everyday happenings of the author’s own life. Shigeru Mizuki does an interesting thing to differentiate between these two story strands – the artwork is very different. For the historical events and happenings he uses a realistic style of art, while for the memoir part he uses a comic style of art. It is fascinating. We hear the story through the author’s voice, but sometimes (or many times) a new narrator comes on the scene and takes the story forward or handles the transition between history and memoir. This new narrator is a yokai character (a supernatural being from Japanese folklore) called Nezumi Otoko (translated in English as Rat-man). Nezumi is a fascinating narrator and I loved this aspect of the book – a supernatural being narrating history.

I know only the broad outlines of Japanese history in the 20th century and I learnt a lot from this book. One of the interesting things that I learnt was how hard it was for democracy to put down roots in Japan. The book describes how the military felt that the civilian government wasn’t decisive enough and how military officers repeatedly tried orchestrating coups to overthrow the civilian government (once even assassinating the Prime Minister).

I loved Shigeru Mizuki’s style of storytelling – dispassionate, sometimes critical but always sticking to the facts, and following the golden rule ‘Show, don’t tell’.

I loved the first part of ‘Showa‘. I can’t wait to start the second part.

I’m sharing the pictures of some of the pages to give you a feel of the artwork. The first picture is the comic style artwork for the memoir. The second and third pictures are the realistic style artwork for historical events. The fourth picture has Nezumi Otoko narrating the story.

Have you read ‘Showa‘? What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read Shion Miura’sThe Great Passage‘ ever since I discovered it last year.

The Great Passage‘ is about the making of a Japanese dictionary. The main characters work for a publisher which brings out dictionaries. The editorial department decides to bring out a new, big dictionary of the Japanese language. They recruit a person called Majime from the sales department, who is unsuited for his current job but who is a word-nerd. The rest of the book is about how the dictionary project proceeds through different phases and what challenges the main characters face. There are also a couple of romantic stories which form part of the book.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Great Passage‘. This book is a beautiful love letter to words and the art of making dictionaries. I learnt a lot about dictionary projects and the art and science of lexicography through the book. It is amazing how long it takes to compile a dictionary from scratch. In this story it takes 15 years. One of my favourite parts of the book was about the paper which is used in dictionaries and how the paper company designs the right kind of paper for this particular dictionary. It is very fascinating. The book inspired me to dip into a dictionary I have and order a couple of more dictionaries 😁

One of the things I love about contemporary Japanese literature is this. Sometimes Japanese authors take a field of study or a thing or an activity or a profession and write a beautiful love letter to it and shine a light on its glorious beauty. Yoko Ogawa’sThe Housekeeper and the Professor is about the beauty of mathematics and baseball, Ito Ogawa’sThe Restaurant of Love Regained is about the pleasures of food, Natsu Miyashita’sThe Forest of Wool and Steel is about the beauty of piano tuning. Shion Miura’sThe Great Passage‘ follows in this beautiful tradition and sings an ode to the beauty of words and dictionaries.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“Words were necessary for creation. Kishibe imagined the primordial ocean that covered the surface of the earth long ago—a soupy, swirling liquid in a state of chaos. Inside every person there was a similar ocean. Only when that ocean was struck by the lightning of words could all come into being. Love, the human heart . . . Words gave things form so they could rise out of the dark sea.”

Have you read ‘The Great Passage‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Daisy Hildyard’sThe Second Body‘ serendipitously when I was looking for something else. The premise sounded interesting and I couldn’t resist getting it. This is my first Fitzcarraldo nonfiction book, so yay!

Daisy Hildyard’s main thesis in the book is this – that each of us has two bodies, the first one is the physical body which we have and experience each day, and the second is the impact and footprint we leave on the environment by our lifestyle choices and the things we do. She says we experience the first body at the individual level everyday and though we don’t experience the second body at that level because it is global, it is also a physical, real body. In the rest of the book, Hildyard tries to find out how she can bring both the bodies together, and for this she talks to different scientists to get more insights.

The Second Body‘ is an interesting book. There is lots of food for thought and Hildyard’s prose flows smoothly and the pages fly. I didn’t find Hildyard’s second body thesis very convincing though. The book doesn’t appear to give any clear answers and I’m not sure which side Hildyard is on with respect to questions like ‘Is it better to drive a car or is it better to walk?’, ‘Is it better to eat meat or is it better to be vegetarian / vegan?’, ‘Are humans part of the environment or is the environment there to serve humans?’ But the book explores interesting ideas which makes us think. One of my favourites was the research on bacteria that a scientist called Paul did and the insights it revealed on whether an organism is an individual or a part of a mega-organism and whether this insight could be scaled up to humans. It is a fascinating thing to think about.

Daisy Hildyard’s book has won good praise. One of my favourite descriptions of the book was this – “In its insistence on the illusion of individuality and on the participation of human animals in the whole of earthly life, ‘The Second Body’ might be an ancient text; in its scientific literacy and its mood of ecological disquiet, Daisy Hildyard’s book is as contemporary as the morning paper.” However, this description of the book – “her sly variety of scientific inquiry is incandescent” – made me smile 😁 What does this even mean? So many adjectives!

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“I always wanted to be a scientist, Paul told me, but I started off with this impression that there is universal truth – you find out a truth and then that is the fact. But now I know that most of the things you read are not right. No research project I have done has given me the answer I have expected.

The way that Paul talked about his work made it sound like a process of painstaking, almost painful disillusion. He spoke of learning as a process of realising his own mistakes. When he made a discovery, there was no self-congratulation, but another set of problems. His errors would outlive him. My impression then was that his research was only the container for a force – a sense that something was missing – that would have driven Paul even if he had been a hairdresser, writer or account manager.”

Have you read ‘The Second Body‘? What do you think about it? I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially if you liked Hildyard’s thesis and found it convincing.

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I have wanted to read Fumiko Enchi’sThe Waiting Years‘ ever since I discovered it last year. I finally got around to reading it today.

Tomo is the wife of a powerful government official. One day her husband tells her that he wants a concubine and asks Tomo to find the right woman who will play that role and who will fit into the household, as Tomo knows her husband and her household best. It is a difficult and painful thing for Tomo, but she does what her husband asks. What happens after that and the twists and turns her life takes forms the rest of the story.

Fumiko Enchi’s portrayal of Japan of that time is very fascinating. I initially thought that the period portrayed in the book was the post Second World War years. Then while reading it, based on information that is revealed, I thought it was the time leading up to the Second World War. After reading the book, I discovered that the story is set in the late 19th century and the early part of the 20th century. It is fascinating that the story could fit into any of the periods that I’ve mentioned.

One of the things I loved about the book is that it is not judgemental. It depicts that particular period in Japanese society in intricate detail with delicate nuances. If we look at the story through our current 21st century lens, we might say that one character is good and another is bad and rage against some of them. But that is not what Fumiko Enchi does. Her nuanced portrayal is fascinating. Anton Chekhov once said –

“The artist must not judge his characters or their words; he must only be an impartial witness.”

Fumiko Enchi’s book is a beautiful example of what happens when an artist does that.

Tomo is one of the great characters in Japanese literature. The way she handles her husband’s request, and the way she manages her relationship with the new concubine, how it starts with pain and some jealousy and how later she becomes like a big sister and a mother is beautifully portrayed. Tomo made me think a lot of the central mother character in Kyung-Sook Shin’s famous contemporary novel ‘Please Look After Mom‘. I am wondering whether Kyung-Sook Shin got inspired by Fumiko Enchi’s book when she wrote her own Korean version if it.

Towards the end of the book, Fumiko Enchi reserves the best for the last and writes these lines.

“The small houses she saw before her each time she halted were an undistinguished collection of secondhand shops, grocers, general stores and the like, yet the orange light from their electric lamps had an infinite brightness, and the odors of cooking appealed to the senses with an ineffable richness and warmth that shook Tomo’s heart to the core. Happiness – a small-scale, endearing, harmonious happiness – surely dwelt here beneath the low-powered lamps in the tiny rooms of these houses. A small-scale happiness and a modest harmony : let a man cry out, let him rage, let him howl with grief with all the power of which he was capable, what more than these could he ever hope to gain in this life?

Tomo felt a sudden, futile despair at herself as she stood there in the road alone in the snow, loath to go on, with her gray shawl drawn up close about her neck and an open umbrella held in the hand that was frozen like ice. Everything that she had suffered for, worked for, and won within the restricted sphere of a life whose key she had for decades past entrusted to her wayward husband Yukitomo lay within the confines of that unfeeling, hard, and unassailable fortress summed up by the one word ‘family.’ No doubt, she had held her own in that small world. In a sense, all the strength of her life had gone into doing just that; but now in the light of the lamps of these small houses that so cheerlessly lined one side of the street she had suddenly seen the futility of that somehow artificial life on which she had lavished so much energy and wisdom. Was it possible, then, that everything she had lived for was vain and profitless? No: she shook her head in firm rejection of the idea. Her world was a precarious place, a place where one groped one’s way through the gloom; where everything one’s hand touched was colorless, hard, and cold; where the darkness seemed to stretch endlessly ahead. Yet at the end of it all a brighter world surely lay waiting, like the light when one finally emerges from a tunnel. If it were not there waiting, then nothing made sense. She must not despair, she must walk on; unless she climbed and went on climbing she would never reach the top of the hill.”

I cried when I read that.

I loved ‘The Waiting Years‘. I loved Fumiko Enchi’s portrayal of those times. The story had many strong women characters who do their best to survive during a time when life was tough for women. Some of them do questionable things. But it was hard not to like them and not be fascinated by them. The book is just 183 pages long, but in that short space, Fumiko Enchi covers a period of many decades. It doesn’t feel rushed which, I think, is a triumph of her storytelling skills.

Fumiko Enchi seems to be the mother-figure for all contemporary Japanese women writers. Her earliest books date to the 1920s. Just three of her books seem to be available in English translation. It is a shame. Wish more of her books get translated into English. I can’t wait to read the other two.

Have you read Fumiko Enchi’sThe Waiting Years‘? What do you think about it?

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