Tuesday 29 July 2014

'The Tilted Cup: Noh Stories' by Paul Griffiths (Review)

While Bellezza's Japanese Literature Challenge 8 has been running for almost two months now, thus far I haven't really been able to contribute much.  Today's post, though, is an attempt to rectify that with something a little different.  You see, while the inspiration is Japanese, the end product is Welsh - and the style is excitingly unique.  I shall explain...

Paul Griffith's The Tilted Cup: Noh Stories (review copy courtesy of the publisher) is another of the wonderful slices of writing from The Cahiers Series, a coproduction between Sylph Editions and The Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris.  Each of the cahiers is a slim, aesthetically-pleasing volume, running to about forty pages, and they all have some sort of connection with translation.

This particular cahier is of special interest to J-Lit fans as it takes classic stories from Japanese Noh plays (slow productions which use wooden masks to convey emotions) and condenses them into brief, elegant short stories in English.  While it sounds a little unorthodox, it's actually a decision which works very well, as the original stories are less complete tales than thought-provoking vignettes - and they are all very well-known in Japan, on a par with such tales as the Arthurian legends or Aesop's fables.

Several of the choices touch on the supernatural, depicting encounters between humans and spirits.  In 'Hagoromo', a fisherman agrees to return a spirit-being's cloak to enable it to return to the heavens and, in return, is allowed to witness a heavenly dance - an indescribable event:
"The fisherman never tried to describe what he then saw, not to his beloved, not to his friends, not, when he was an old man, to the children of the village.  He had seen something; that much they all knew.  They would look into his eyes, for a trace of it.  Of course, there was nothing to be seen."
'Hagoromo', p.13 (Sylph Editions, 2014)
The first story, 'Tadanori', also introduces a spirit, when a monk sleeping beneath a cherry-blossom tree is watched over by a ghost - the poet the monk is seeking -, and in 'Kayoi Komachi' we hear of a poetess, a ghostly lover and spilt wine which never reaches the floor...

Another theme is the occurrence of chance meetings, as detailed in 'Hachi no Ki'.  In this story, a ruined, exiled nobleman decides to show pity on a traveller on a cold winter night, and while the outcome is perhaps the most predictable of all the stories, it's still elegantly done.  In contrast, 'Hanjo' tells of a chance meeting between two young lovers, where fortune conspires to put obstacles in the path of their happiness, leaving the woman to abandon hope of ever finding the man again.

As much as the stories are fascinating, though, the real beauty of The Tilted Cup is in how the tales are told.  The title itself comes from the writer's preface, which he begins:
"Translation tilts the cup, and the text takes on a new shape.  What spills over, the translator hopes, is not lost to the ground but held in the ambience of that which remains." (p.5)
In fact, by taking stories from Japanese into English, and converting them from drama to prose, Griffiths is making a double translation - or, as he puts it, tilting the cup at least twice.  Happily for the reader, it doesn't appear that too much of the essence has splashed out onto the ground ;)

Griffiths has brought the stories into the new language (and genre) with some beautiful writing, and he has a pleasingly light touch with words.  In 'Kantan', a tale of a student, a pillow and some spell-binding dreams, one of the images is described thus:
"Thereupon a messenger in court uniform arrived to tell him the emperor had died, and had named him heir.
 Why?  The messenger didn't know.  That wasn't his job."
'Kantan' (p.17)
There are many more examples of sly winks to the reader, but let's not give too much away here...

What stands out most about the collection, however is the way in which several of the tales play with the structure to make the story stand out.  In 'Fujisan', the brief text is shaped in the image of the famous mountain, and 'Teika', which recounts the perfect love between a princess and a poet, takes the form of an incomplete sentence, one which circles back on itself and could almost be read continuously.

The best of these, though, is 'Saigyozakura', in which a famous poet laments the visitors who journey to see his famous cherry-blossom tree - and disturb his tranquillity.  However, a spirit chides him for blaming the tree:
"It seems to me, said the flowers, that you carry human nonsense within you.  Only the fool thinks himself raised above folly."
'Saigyozakura' (p.36)
The beauty of this one, however, is what you discover when you glance at the end notes.  You see, this one is a story within a story, for if you look back at the text, there is another, similar tale hidden within, just waiting to be discovered by the careful reader...

As always with the cahiers, there's far more to the work than just the text.  The book also includes several photographs by John L. Tran of contemporary Japan, interspersed between the stories and perhaps reflecting them in a new light.  Many of them focus on empty hallways in covered shopping strips, cold, shiny and fairly claustrophobic.  For people who have visited Japan, they're fairly familiar images, yet the absence of people, and the forbidding, rolled-down shutters, give the pictures a slightly more sinister, other-worldly air...

...which brings us nicely back to the stories :)  The Tilted Cup is a beautiful work, another perfect coffee-table piece (for if I ever get a coffee table), and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in Japan, Noh plays or Japanese shopping centres.  It's not a book which will take long to read, but it's certainly one you'll be dipping back into time and time again...