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“…to see the figure of Fuji in a different light.” #osamudazai #japaneselitchallenge16

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Well, I hadn’t planned to necessarily read another Japanese book for this month’s Japanese Literature Challenge… However, a flurry of mentions on Twitter centring around the recent New Directions ‘Storybook ND’ releases reminded me that I had “Early Light” by Osamu Dazai in that edition lurking digitally – and so it seemed like a good time to try a little e-reading! I’m not a fan of the medium (my eyes suffer a lot…) but as the hardbacks of this series are so expensive, I had no choice but to try the e-book. Fortunately, it’s a short work so I managed…

“Early Light” contains three short works by Dazai, an author I’ve written about before on the Ramblings; back in 2016, I read his classic work “The Setting Sun” for our 1947 Club, and I’ve actually owned several of his works for decades. Dazai was a complex man, often controversial, who took his own life; and his writing style for “The Setting Sun” was fascinating, if detached. That latter element was commented on by Marina Sofia, who mentioned she thought it was typical of much Japanese writing, and some years further down the line I tend to agree with her.

The works featured here (translated by Ralph McCarthy and Donald Keene) are varied; the title story is an autobiographical one, which relates the misadventures of the narrator during the fire bombings of Tokyo at the end of WW2. The man is a drinker, and he and his wife and child are burned out of house and home. Having survived the conflagration and lost everything, they flee to relatives, only to be subject to bombing again. Underlying this is the health of the couple’s little girl, suffering from severe conjunctivitis which is hard for them to treat owing to the conflict.

The second story is “One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji”, which takes its title from Hokusai’s famous series of paintings of the mountain. However, the narrator here is less than respectful towards this Japanes landmark; staying locally and trying to write, everywhere he turns he sees a view of Fuji, most of which have been reduced to cliches. Harrassed by the sightseers who’ve come to see the view and have their pictures taken with it, it becomes debatable as to whether he’ll ever get any writing done.

Whenever Nitta came to visit me from then on, he brought various other youths with him. They were all quiet types. They called me “Sensei,” and I accepted that with a straight face. I have nothing worth boasting about. No learning to speak of. No talent. My body’s a mess, my heart impoverished. Only the fact that I’ve known suffering, enough suffering to feel qualified to let these youths call me “Sensei” without protesting—that’s all I have, the only straw of pride I can cling to. But it’s one I’ll never let go of. A lot of people have written me off as a spoiled, selfish child, but how many really know how I’ve suffered inside?

The final piece, “Villon’s Wife”, is in complete constrast to the first two; narrated by the put-upon wife of yet another drunken writer (are you sensing a pattern here??) it tells how her husband’s habits have left them totally impoverished. However, it is the woman here who manages to step outside the boundaries of her everyday life of degradation and find a way to save them from total destitution.

Dazai was a fascinating author, with these three stories of his being very entertaining and often thought-provoking. There’s a semi-humourous aspect to “One Hundred…” as the narrator ruefully surveys not only the landscape around him but also his inability to writer. “Early Light” is intriguing, as he takes what could be a difficult topic (particularly bearing in mind other narratives about wartime bombings…) and handles it with a lighter touch than you might expect. The events he and his family are dealing with are dramatic, dangerous ones, yet his almost matter-of-fact writing keeps the story from becoming too harrowing.

As for “Villon’s Wife”, well, I’ve seen it described as a masterpiece, and it really is. What’s particularly interesting, I suppose, is seeing the drunken author from the viewpoint of his long-suffering wife, and kudos to the author for capturing that; possibly this is an unusual thing in Japanese fiction of the time, although I’m not well-versed enough in the topic to say. But it’s very satisfying to watch Mrs. Otani gradually developing her own identity, gaining confidence and dealing with what life throws at her to finally manage to pull their lives around. Fascinating.

This will, I think, be my last read for Japanese Literature Month, and it was a top-drawer work to end the month on! I have unread Dazai on Mount TBR and I really should try to get to some of it sooner rather than later, as this was a marvellous read; I’m glad ND decided to issue it. And thanks need to go also to Dolce Bellezza for hosting this wonderful reading event – one of my favourite of the year, and I have enjoyed it this January! 😀

 

#1947 Club – Visiting post-War Japan

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The Setting Sun by Osamu Dazai
Translated by Donald Keene

One of the joys of this reading week has been the fact that so far it’s taken me to some very far flung places! “The Labours of Hercules” took Poirot all over the world; “The Plague” was set in French Algeria; “A Girl in Winter” looked at England before and during WW”; and now I’m off to post-War Japan with Osamu Dazai’s work, “The Setting Sun”.

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Dazai (June 19, 1909 – June 13, 1948) was an enigmatic figure whose early suicide (after several attempts) turned him into a cult in Japan. “The Setting Sun” was one of his last works, and it’s set immediately after WW2 – which of course saw a crushing defeat for Japan. This loss is referred to throughout the book, and the story is one of decay – of the old way of Japanese life, of the old regime, of the old morality and specifically of the aristocracy. The book is narrated by Kazuko, daughter of noble family who have fallen on hard times. The father is dead, the brother Naoji missing, and Kazuko and her mother (always referred to as being ‘a lady’) scrape a living. The family home has been sold and they’ve moved to a small dwelling in the country. But despite constant sales of clothes and jewels, the family barely get by, and the situation is not improved by the return of the prodigal son. Naoji himself is in decline, being a recovering drug addict and pretty much an alcoholic.

But Kazuko is no blushing flower, and has her own history of a broken marriage and a stillborn child, as well as dalliances with artistic friends of her brothers. And as her mother and brother continue to decline, Kazuko is drawn to change and a need to live.

The older and wiser heads of the world have always described revolution and love to us as the two most foolish and loathsome human activities. Before the war, even during the war, we were convinced of it. Since the defeat, however, we no longer trust the older and wiser heads and have to come to feel that the opposite of what they say is the real truth about life. Revolution and love are in fact the best, most pleasurable things in the world, and we realise it is precisely because they are so good that the older and wiser heads have spitefully fobbed us off on their sour grapes of a lie. This I want to believe implicitly: Man was born for love and revolution.

Her answer to her emotional dilemma is to throw herself at Mr Uehara, author friend of her brother’s, and frankly not much of a catch from the description here. She wanders round Tokyo looking for him, shamelessly caring nothing of the fact that he has a wife, a child and numerous lovers. Her encounter with him will decide her future, but what a broken future that is…

“The Setting Sun” was an unusual, sometimes fragmentary book, but absolutely fascinating. It’s chock full of symbolism, which of course refers to the so called “Land of the Rising Sun” being in decline, and there is a recurring motif of snakes. These turn up regularly, usually as a portent of death and at one point Kazuko burns some snake eggs which she feels brings on a kind of curse. Fire is a theme too, with the eggs, and with Kazuko almost setting fire to the house and consequently the whole village.

Kazuko herself is a complex character; Dazai’s books are often described as semiautobiographical and I did find myself wondering if her behaviour was typical of women of that era. She drinks, runs around Tokyo in pursuit of men and often seems to have little regard of what people think about her. But the more I thought about it, the more I understood that she was also symbolic. It seems to me that Kazuko and Naoji represent the reality of the aristocracy; on the surface very powerful and revered but underneath actually corrupt and dissolute.

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Dazai’s style is also of interest; he has a very distinctive way of structuring his chapters, with what is almost the climax of the action at the start which he then works his way towards during the rest of that chapter. It makes for stimulating, if unusual, reading. As for the subject matter, I imagine that a scholar of Japanese life and culture would sense even more symbols and references in the book than I did; nevertheless, I did enjoy “The Setting Sun” immensely. It’s a book I think I admire and like, rather than love, and I put that down to a certain detachment in the storytelling. Kazuko herself was a character I struggled with in places; it’s hard sometimes to sympathise with her melodramatic monologues and although I understand she’s meant to be a woman caught in a changing society, trapped between ancient and modern, I didn’t feel she was necessarily rounded enough.

Despite that caveat, the glimpse of post-War Japan presented here was fascinating, and I’ll be interested to read his other cult classic “No Longer Human”, which I have lurking on Mount TBR. The 1947 Club is certainly throwing up some intriguing books and stay tuned to find out which counry I’ll end up visiting for my last reads of the week!

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