Thursday, 16 May 2013

'Blue Bamboo' by Osamu Dazai (Review)

Back at the start of the year, during my January in Japan event, Patrick of my so-called research wrote a J-Lit Giants piece on Osamu Dazai.  Having only read The Setting Sun and a couple of short stories, I was naturally keen to try some more of the books Patrick talked about in his piece.  The opportunity to do this soon came about when Kurodahan Press sent me a review copy of a short story collection - which turned out to be a little different to what I'd read before...

Blue Bamboo was originally released by Kodansha USA, but was recently reissued by Kurodahan Press.  It's a collection of short stories from Dazai's middle period of writing, and this reissue gave the original translator, Ralph McCarthy, the opportunity to give his work a bit of a face-lift.  Its 200 pages comprise seven stories, and while Dazai's longer work is steeped in depressing realism, these tales have a much lighter, other-worldly focus.

Two of the stories ('The Chrysanthemum Spirit' and 'Blue Bamboo') are loose adaptations of old Chinese folk tales.  In the first, a stubborn, cantankerous old man, with a passion for growing chrysanthemums, encounters an unusual brother and sister combination on his way home.  What follows is an amusing little story involving pretty flowers and the supernatural, not a sentence I find myself writing often!

In the title story, one which keeps you guessing as to whether it is to be a tragedy or a comedy, a poetic soul, with no aptitude for civil service entrance exams, is at his wits' end.  Observing a flock of ravens outside a temple, he wishes to become one of the sacred birds - and has his wish granted. What follows is a tale exploring the ups and downs of getting what you want...

Another fairy-tale story is 'The Mermaid and the Samurai', an adaptation of a famous Japanese short story from the seventeenth century.  Konnai Chudo, an exemplary samurai, kills a mermaid which is threatening to sink a boat he is travelling on.  However, when news of the event gets out, a courtier laughs at him, forcing Konnai to seek evidence of his feat - a quest which will end in tears for most involved...  It's a story which emphasises the importance of trust and belief, underlining its pivotal place in Bushido, the way of the samurai:
"To a true samurai, trust is everything.  He who will not believe without seeing is a pitiful excuse for a man.  Without trust, how can one know what is real and what is not?  Indeed, one may see and yet not believe - is this not the same as never seeing?  Is not everything, then, no more than an immaterial dream? The recognition of any reality begins with trust.  And the source of all trust is love for one's fellow man.  But you - you have not a speck of love in your miserable heart, nor of faith."
p.55, 'The Mermaid and the Samurai' (Kurodahan Press, 2012)
Then again, if someone told me they'd just taken out a mermaid, I'm not sure I'd believe them either ;)

'Romanesque' is an earlier piece, again verging on the surreal, as Dazai outlines the lives of three absurd characters (a wizard, a fighter and a liar) in order to... well, I'm not really sure.  This story is then mentioned in 'Alt Heidelberg', an autobiographical sketch of a youthful, drunken summer spent at a friend's house trying to write a story.  It's well written and humorous, and, in its more realistic tone, a welcome contrast to some of the other stories in the collection.

My favourites though are the two which bookend the collection.  The first story, 'On Love and Beauty', introduces us to a family of five unusual siblings, whose characters are sketched out for us by the writer.  They too tell stories, so Dazai is telling us a story within a story - one which works very well.  There's a lot more to the idea than mere storytelling, and Dazai uses his meta-fictional idea nicely.  As the eldest son muses:
"The description of physical appearance is extremely important in a work of fiction.  By describing what a character looks like, you bring him alive and remind people of someone close to them, thereby lending intimacy to the tale and involving the audience, so that they cease to be mere passive observers."
(pp.22/3, 'On Love and Beauty')
This is exactly what Dazai does, and the story works wonderfully precisely because the reader has a clear mental image of the family members.

The family are back for the last story, 'Lanterns of Romance', which takes up sixty of the two-hundred pages.  This time the five spend the first days of the new year spinning a longer story, to be written down, then performed.  It starts with a happily-ever-after fairytale, but goes on to become something both more realistic and grotesque.  Dazai also extends his portrait of the characters narrating the tale, adding new members to the family and fleshing out the personality of the mother.  While he uses a Hans Christian Andersen story to kick off the family's effort, the style is all Dazai's own :)

When I read The Setting Sun and Dazai's other stories, the impression I was left with was one of wasted lives, squalor and depression.  This collection is much lighter, comical and humorous, but just as enjoyable.  Dazai shows a deft touch in his humour, and McCarthy has done a good job in bringing it across into English.  There are dozens of examples like the following:
"People in the neighborhood were wont to remark that it was just like a scholar to be so perverse as to name his only son Saburo, which is of course a name normally reserved for third sons.  The fact that no one could explain what it was that made that particular act so typical of scholarly perversity was, it was said, precisely what made it so."
(p.134, 'Romanesque')
Obviously, I haven't read McCarthy's original translation, but I'm sure that whatever he did was for the better!

Entertaining stories, a good translation and a brief introduction with information about the background of the stories make this a book well worth reading.  I'd recommend it to anyone interested in J-Lit (or in tall tales!).  Give it a go - I doubt you'll be disappointed :)