On the narrow road

Bookhounders may remember that I recently reviewed Richard Flanagan's stunning Booker prize winning novel The narrow road to the deep north; a novel principally centred around the death camps of the Burma railway. Flanagan wrote about the survival of the human spirit against incredible odds; but there was also another side of the coin. What made the Japanese and Korean guards who, with one exception, seemed such ordinary men, act with such unbelievable cruelty; and how they could go back to such ordinariness after the war knowing what they had done? At least one of Flanagan's Japanese characters, a man dedicated to beauty and Japanese etiquette appears to struggle with this.

So, it was with some interest that I found Basho's Journey, edited and translated by the American scholar David Landis Barnhill. The Basho of the title is Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), scholar, poet and philosopher. His journeys around Japan resulted in a number of volumes part-travel books, part-collections of poems, both hokku (haikus are the twentieth century equivalent), and prose poems known as haibun.

Basho's Journey includes translations of Basho's literary prose, with accompanying hokku and haibun. The work is arranged roughly chronologically with the travel diaries, the premiere form of Japanese literature in the seventeenth century placed first, followed by the haibun. The works included are: Journey of bleached bones in a field, Kashima Journal, Knapsack notebook, Sarashina Journal, The narrow road to the deep north, Saga diary, followed by selected haibun.

I found the layout slightly confusing as some of the haibun and hokku appeared to have been taken from somewhere else and placed separately for no apparent reason, but generally the chronological approach worked well. There was an informative introduction with background to Basho's life, work and influences; and a quick, but very interesting look, at his influence into the twenty-first century specifically on American authors and American nature writing. There are also maps, a helpful glossary and bibliography, copious notes, and a brief biographical sketch giving all the salient dates.

Reading the original Narrow road to the deep north and its accompanying volumes left me more puzzled than before by the events of the Second World War, and yet, in an odd way, it also made a little more sense of the attitude of the Japanese guards.

The first thing to say is that Basho's writing is beautiful. You can read a sentence, which may sometimes seem very alien and not terribly comprehensible, but the beauty of the prose (even across a translation) still rings through. Take for example: "Months and days are the wayfarers of a hundred generations", "Fascinating, and then sorrowful: cormorant boat", "Clouds now and then give us a rest, moon viewing".

I loved so much of the writing, but I also felt very perplexed by it. It feels like such an alien culture. There is a firm concept of beauty, men will travel for miles to view something that is perceived as being beautiful. And they seem to be looking at it not just as natural beauty, but almost in the way that a European critic would view fine art. It is being viewed to certain explicit guidelines

The viewing of nature and philosophy, poetry and art is seen almost like a science with results that can be judged in a very specific way - if they don't provoke emotion, they are not good examples of their craft. This contrasts strongly with normal life in seventeenth century Japan in which emotions are hidden beneath the surface. Art and nature are strongly intermingled, they are part of each other - no artists' brushes without nature, what is nature if it doesn't have art to judge and publicise it? This takes art away from being the sole perquisite of the cultured classes, and means that it cuts right through society. This, I think, is a really good thing, but it also means that as evil is not confined to one strata of society, we shouldn't be surprised or unduly shocked to find evil lurking within art lovers, as happens in Flanagan's novel.

I loved Basho's Journey for the insight it gave me into the later novel, I loved his language, the travel journals are like none other in their beauty and ability to conjure up a scene, and some moments are just heart-stoppingly beautiful. BUT I did struggle with the alienness of it. It felt very different to anything else I have read, partly because Japan was such a closed society at the time, and also because the Japanese had (have?) such a different outlook on art and philosophy. It's a fascinating read. Well worth reading if only for those gems of a very unique Oriental beauty.


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