17 September 2011

Two stories by Tōson Shimazaki


The two stories came from Paulownia: Seven Stories From Contemporary Japanese Writers (1918), translated by Torao Taketomo. The remaining five stories were divided between Mori Ōgai and Nagai Kafū.

I first encountered the name of Tōson Shimazaki (1872-1943) in Murakami Haruki's introductory essay to Jay Rubin's translation of stories by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke. In that essay, Murakami shared his personal list, more or less ranked, of the modern period's top 10 Japanese writers of national stature. He came up with nine names. The top spot was occupied by Natsume Sōseki, in second place was Mori Ōgai, and Tōson Shimazaki was in third.

Tōson Shimazaki first started his literary career as a poet but later shifted to fiction writing at the turn of the twentieth century. His books were said to embody a strong sense of 'naturalism'. Some of his fiction were often considered as autobiographical. He was the author of Before the Dawn (a massive historical novel), Chikuma River Sketches, The Broken Commandment, and The Family. The latter two novels were part of the UNESCO Collection of Representative Works. (I recommend these works that were singled out by UNESCO for translation due to their cultural and literary values. I was fortunate to have read excellent novels by Sōseki and Tanizaki that were included in this very selective list. The complete list of UNESCO representative works from the Japanese language can be found here.)

The first of Tōson's stories in Paulownia, "A Domestic Animal", began without wasting words on exposition: 
HER first misfortune was at her birth; she came into the world with short gray hair, overhanging ears, and fox-like eyes. Every animal which is called by favor domestic has a certain quality which attracts to itself the friendly feeling of man. But she did not have it. Nothing in her countenance seemed to be favored by man. She was entirely lacking in the usual qualifications of a domestic animal. Naturally she was deserted.
   However, she was also a dog, an animal which cannot live by itself. She could not leave the hereditary habitat to be fed by people and then go back to the wild native place of her remote ancestors. She began to search after a suitable human house.

The story thus progressed into a search for home by an ugly-looking dog called Pup. Because of her appearance, she was shunned by the people in the neighborhood. But it was the narrative voice of the story that provided an endearing counterpoint to the sad plight of Pup: "To her eyes, there was nothing as merciless and cruel as the human being." In spite of the intimations of man's capacity for animal cruelty, the story maintained a lightness of touch and wit behind the anthropomorphism. The story's ending was a redemptive resolution that only generous stories can offer.

In the second story, Tōson wrote: "Nothing is so hard to foresee as human life." And later: "Observing the world, I notice that the present age, lacking in faith, does not keep the young mind in quietude." Something told me he was an epigrammatic writer. 

"Tsugaru Strait" was about a married couple who traveled aboard the ship Surugamaru. The couple decided to take some time off while grieving for the unexpected death of their young son Ryunosuke. The sea as backdrop of the story was specially interesting for its reference to maritime tensions between Japan and Russia, nations at war at that time (1904-1905):

The day was perfect for a voyage. It was the time when the regular steamship lines were interrupted by the rumor that the Russian ships from Vladivostock, which not long before had passed through Tsugaru Strait, were appearing now and then along the Pacific coast. During five or six days only was this line between Awomori and Hakodate in operation. As it was disappointing to my wife and myself to go home after having come so far, and as the Russian ships were said to be cruising on the open sea in the vicinity of Oshima and the Izu Islands—the very night before we had heard that the fleet of the enemy was sunk, the announcement of which some of the newspapers printed in an extra—we left the inn, not worrying about the ships, trusting somewhat to the truth of the statements in the extra.

The translation by Torao Taketomo did not sound smooth here and in other places in the two stories in fact. If the original sounded the same, I wouldn't know. But still there were moments when the translator was able to convey some surprising metaphors (e.g., "My wife is tiresome, for she is just a baby, and I am only a nurse who is taking care of this infant of forty years."). 

The second story was not as tightly written as the first, but it did give a unique perspective on a parent's grief over the loss of a child. The story became interesting when, during the couple's journey on ship, they encountered a young student who was a spitting image of their son. This only intensified their grief, and what happened next aboard the ship further exposed their feelings.

These two stories by Tōson demonstrated an idiosyncratic handling of metaphors ("some [passengers] were sleeping on the deck with their mouths open like fishes") such that the simple details became pregnant with possibilities. The course of events in these stories was driven by simple universal motivations, but the simplicity could be deceptive. Behind the plot were human (and humane) points of view about compassion to animals, about parental grief, about navigating this world where animals and men are exiled by their emotions. These are wise stories. Enough fuel for a new reader of Tōson to search out his full length works.

I downloaded the text (pdf) of Paulownia from Hathi Trust Digital Library. Thanks to Nihon distractions for the tip on the free availability of this book. Image source: Facebook.