little irish jackhammer
- cherry blossom
- Kyoto Girls High School
- Wacky Japan
It has been 20 years since I last read The Songlines, but how I managed to forget about this passage I have no idea…
On the ferry back from Manly a little old lady heard me talking.
‘You’re English, aren’t you?’ she said, in an English North Country accent. ‘I can tell you’re English.’
‘So am I!’
She was wearing thick, steel-framed spectacles and a nice felt hat with a wisp of blue net above the brim.
‘Are you visiting Sydney?’ I asked her.
‘Lord, love, no!’ she said, ‘I’ve lived here since 1946. I came out to live with my son, but a very strange thing happened. By the time the ship got here, he’d died. Imagine! I’d given up my home in Doncaster, so I thought I might as well stay! So I asked my second son to come out and live with me. So he came out… emigrated… and do you know what?’
‘He died. He had a heart attack, and died.’
‘That’s terrible,’ I said.
‘I had a third son,’ she went on. ‘He was my favourite, but he died in the war. Dunkirk, you know! He was very brave. I had a letter from his officer. Very brave, he was! He was on the deck… covered in blazing oil… and he threw himself into the sea. Oooh! He was a sheet of living flame!’
‘But that is terrible!’
‘But it’s a lovely day,’ she smiled. ‘Isn’t it a lovely day?’
It was a bright sunny day with high white clouds and breeze coming in off the ocean. Some yachts were beating out towards The Heads, and other yachts were running under spinnaker. The old ferry ran before the whitecaps, towards the Opera Hous and the Bridge.
‘And it’s so lovely out at Manly!’ she said. ‘I loved to go out to Manly with my son… before he died! But I haven’t been for twenty years!’
‘But it’s so near,’ I said.
‘But I haven’t been out of the house for sixteen. I was blind, love. My eyes was covered with cataracts, and I couldn’t see a thing. The eye surgeon said it was hopeless, so I sat there. Think of it! Sixteen years in the dark! Then along comes this nice social worker the other week and says, “We’d better get those cataracts looked at.” And look at me now!’
I looked through the spectacles at a pair of twinkling – that is the word for them – twinkling blue eyes.
‘They took me to hospital,’ she said. ‘And they cut out the cataracts! And isn’t it lovely? I can see!’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It’s wonderful!’
‘It’s my first time out alone,’ she confided. ‘I didn’t tell a soul. I said to myself at breakfast, “It’s a lovely day. I’ll take the bus to Circular Quay, and go over on the ferry to Manly… just like we did in the old days.” I had a fish lunch. Oh, it was lovely!’
She hunched her shoulders mischievously, and giggled.
‘How old would you say I was?’ she asked.
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Let me look at you. I’d say you were eighty.’
‘No. No. No,’ she laughed. ‘I’m ninety-three… and I can see!’
You can’t fail to be touched by that really, can you? Just reading that made my day, so I hope wherever you may be, that you have a lovely day too.
See also: Songlines Revisited #1 ~ Greet God
I’m rereading Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines after an interval of two decades. The great thing about rereading this book in the 21st century is that whenever I come across something I am unfamiliar with, instead of skipping over it as I would have 20 years ago, I can instantly look it up on my i-phone or computer – whichever is to hand. It has greatly enriched my reading experience! Towards the end of the book Chatwin describes hiking through the Austrian alps,
The days were cloudless. I spent each night in a different Alpine hut, and had sausages and beer for supper. The mountainsides were in flower: gentians and edelweiss, columbines and the turk’s cap lily. The pinewoods were blue-green in the sunlight, and streaks of snow still lingered on the screes…
Isn’t it nice to be able to see what the flowers look like? Chatwin also describes how everyone called “Grüß Gott” as they passed.
Grüß Gott (literally ‘Greet God’) is a greeting, less often a farewell, in the Upper German Sprachraum especially in Switzerland, Bavaria, Franconia, Swabia and Austria. The greeting was publicized in the 19th century by the Catholic clergy and along with its variants has long been the most common greeting form in Southern Germany and Austria. The salutation often receives a good-natured sarcastic response from Northern (and thus mainly Protestant) Germans such as “When I see him” (“Wenn ich ihn sehe”) or “Hopefully not too soon” (“Hoffentlich nicht so bald”). [LINK]
I like that.
The Forty Rules of Love is two stories told in one. The story that frames the book is of Ella, an unhappy Jewish American housewife who commences an internet relationship with a mysterious author named Aziz. This relationship blossoms into love and ultimately proves to be her salvation. Within that story is a novel by Aziz about the historical figure of Shams of Tabriz and his relationship with the famous Persian poet Rumi. This relationship is said to be the catalyst of Rumi’s great spiritual awakening.
I bought this book some time ago after watching a TED talk by its author Elif Shafak entitled: The Politics of Fiction. It was a very powerful defence of a novelist’s right to write not “what you know”, but what you feel. As a Turkish, muslim, woman writer Elif Shafak feels frustrated by those who always expect her to write soley from the perspective of a Turkish, muslim, woman, “and, preferably, the unhappy stories of unhappy Muslim women.” She argues that a fiction writer should have the freedom to move beyond his or her own cultural identity and use their imagination to describe unfamiliar worlds.
Imaginative literature is not necessarily about writing who we are or what we know or what our identity is about. We should teach young people and ourselves to expand our hearts and write what we can feel. We should get out of our cultural ghetto and go visit the next one and the next.
Fiction, she says, is free. It enables us to travel to far distant lands and to connect with others who would otherwise be strange to us on a very personal level. And in doing so fiction can overcome ingrained cultural bias and foster qualities of understanding and compassion.
Now that is a lady whose work I would like to read, I thought. Her speech was witty, charming and entertaining – how much more so her books? And as for her central message, that a novelist has a right, a duty even, to describe other worlds and identities far removed from their own – well, I had to wonder, could she pull it off? So I ordered the book immediately, but (!) having added it to my evergrowing pile-of-books-I-simply-MUST-read and perenially being busy with other stuff, it sat there for several months untouched and unread…
So why did I read it now? Well, I suppose it was the title. Or more specifically that word in the title: LOVE. With the recent disaster in Tohoku, stealing the lives of thousands, breaking the hearts of many more, and the anxiety induced by the vulture like media frenzy over the threat of radioactive leaks in Fukushima (now stabilising thank you) – I simply needed a bit of love. I think we all do really, and most especially in times like these. And not just escape into some Mills & Boon type romance, but something deeper, more profound, and yes, even spiritual, just like the love celebrated in the poems of the mystic lover Rumi. A few pages in, my needs seemed to have been answered by the following:
…It was a time of unprecedented chaos when Christians fought Christians, Christians fought Muslims, and Muslims fought Muslims. Everywhere one turned, there was hostility and anguish and an intense fear of what might happen next.
In the midst of this chaos lived a distinguished Islamic scholar, known as Jalal ad-Din Rumi… …In 1244, Rumi met Shams – a wandering dervish with unconventional ways and heretical proclamations…. …By meeting this exceptional companion, Rumi was transformed from a mainstream cleric, to a committed mystic, passionate poet, advocate of love, and originator of the ecstatic dance of the whirling dervishes, daring to break free of all conventional rules. In an age of deeply embedded bigotries and clashes, he stood for a universal spirituality, opening his doors to people of all backgrounds. Instead of an outer-orientated jihad- defined as “the war against infidels” and carried out by many in those days just as in the present- Rumi stood up for an inner-orientated jihad where the aim was to struggle against and ultimately prevail over one’s ego, nafs…
Yes! That’s exactly what I need to cheer me up, I thought. A tale of love transcending chaotic circumstance and overcoming anguish and fear. The vision of a bright light in a dark time.
So, how was the book? Well, it was certainly a page-turner. I finished it in a couple of days. However, the frame-story of disatisfied Ella and her internet lover Aziz was rather disappointing. I wasn’t convinced of the depth of their characters or the likelihood of their story. Aziz (a handsome globe-trotting photographer/Sufi mystic) is too perfect. And Ella (a very average, dowdy housewife turning 40) – too boring. Why would Aziz (as perfect as he is) fall in love (over the net no less) with someone who basically just writes to him about her family/marital problems, and how much she likes his book? It reads in fact very much like the suburban escapist fantasies of a pulp fiction romance.
I wonder though, if this was deliberate? Did the author deliberately choose to write the frame-story as a thin piece of romantic fantasy? Is it but a sugar-coated candy-wrapping for the more substantial soul-food of the story contained within? A clue I think, maybe in the teaching of Shams (from the inner story) who speaks of the four levels of insight that people have on reading the Holy Qur’an. “The first level is the outer meaning and it is the one that the majority of the people are content with.” But beyond that there are deeper and deeper levels of meaning that point towards the final fourth level that is said to be indescribable. Perhaps too, this surface romantic love story with its comforting familiarity is there to satisfy the masses. But it points us in the direction of deeper meanings of love, just as Shams says the Holy Qur’an has deeper levels of insight that direct us beyond to a level “so deep it cannot be put into words”.
The book within the book does indeed go deeper, the story is more engaging and the characters more real – and that’s the reason I kept turning those pages. The character of Shams, the wild eccentric dervish, is especially intriguing. His story and that of his companion, the poet Rumi, is told through multiple viewpoints: the children of Rumi, his wife, a novice, a leper, a harlot, a drunk, a bigot and a killer. In this Elif Shafak has adopted the role of a “meddah” that she spoke of in the TED talk I mentioned above:
In the Ottoman times, there were itinerant storytellers called “meddah.” They would go to coffee houses, where they would tell a story in front of an audience, often improvising. With each new person in the story, the meddah would change his voice, impersonating that character. Everybody could go and listen, you know — ordinary people, even the sultan, Muslims and non-Muslims. Stories cut across all boundaries.
This cutting across boundaries is essential to the book. For Shams it is also essential that Rumi learns to cut across boundaries in order to become the “Voice of Love” – one whose words can help all people find fulfillment. “My only concern, ” says Shams, “is the shell you have been living in.”
…how well do you know common people? Drunks, beggars, thieves, prostitutes, gamblers – the most inconsolable and the most downtrodden. Can we love all of God’s creatures? It is a difficult test, and one that only a few can pass.
Within his own story, Shams too is a storyteller, telling little parables that give us insights into our own very human nature. This one is my favorite:
One day a man came running to a Sufi and said, panting, “Hey, they are carrying trays, look over there!”
The Sufi answered calmly, “What is it to us? Is it any of my business?”
“But they are taking those trays to your house!” the man exclaimed.
“Then is it any of your business?” the Sufi said.
And then dotted throughout the book are the Forty Rules of the title, shining like jewels on an embroidered surface. The multiple stories that surround these rules either illustrate them or lead us back toward their contemplation. These rules are taught by Shams to guide us on the path of Love and point us toward that deepest, indescribable level of insight. Here’s one of them:
The universe is one being. Everything and everyone is interconnected through an invisible web of stories. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are all in a silent conversation. Do no harm. Practice compassion. And do not gossip behind anyone’s back – not even a seemingly innocent remark! The words that come out of our mouths do not vanish but are perpetually stored in infinite space, and they will come back to us in due time. One man’s pain will hurt us all. One man’s joy will make everyone smile.
And so as I read the book I considered these rules in relation to my own life and how I live it. What can I do to bring some joy into the world and make people smile? How can I more actively practice compassion? Ultimately, I came away from the book feeling refreshed, energised and positive (despite my misgivings about the frame story). And that was a much needed comfort and tonic after the recent tragic events that have befallen my adopted home. The forty rules at the heart of Elif Shafak’s novel are very powerful. They point you toward your own story, the one that you are writing now every day as you live your life. Perhaps they can help you live it better, or with more insight, or just remind you to face the day with a little more hope.
So, on the whole, I enjoyed the book and it also stirred up some curiosity about the source material. I’d like to learn more about these two characters, their poetry and their teachings: Rumi and Shams of Tabriz. Just glancing at Wikipedia, it seems that to Rumi, music, dance and poetry were essential elements on the spiritual path. Sounds like a man after my own heart…
I had a pretty packed schedule this weekend – most of which will end up on Deep Kyoto at some point no doubt. First on Friday night, I went to Tadg’s to see The Wildcards play some sweet string sounds. (click the link for a video)
Then on Saturday I went to a writer’s event organized by Kyoto Journal. Rebecca Otowa talked about her book “At Home in Japan: A Foreign Woman’s Journey of Discovery”. (click on the thumbnail for a better look)
…and Andy Couturier talked about his book “A Different Kind of Luxury: Japanese Lessons in Simple Living and Inner Abundance”…
Ken said something at the event about how hearing a writer read and talk about their own work opens up aspects of it you hadn’t encountered before. Very true…
After that, I got a haircut.
On Sunday, I saw Viva Sherry play at Kaburenjo (video coming soon here).
Then I went to a Freedom Flotilla protest on Sanjo bridge.
Then, it was back to Tadg’s for a nice vegan supper of Tuscan Bean Stew. Yum.
And then we went home and watched Stand By Me. Though I’ve seen it many times, it never get’s old.
The following verse, attributed to the Susanowo, a storm god, is traditionally said to be the oldest Japanese poem. According to the Kojiki, Susanowo composed this song when building a palace for his new bride in the misty land of Izumo.
Rise in the land of Izumo,
Forming eightfold fences around
To confine my beloved wife in the palace!
Oh, the eightfold fences of clouds!
As Susanowo builds a physical palace to protect his wife, he also chants and repeats the magical number eight and raises mystical defenses built of words and clouds. This is the ancient, “simple, dynamic and lyrical voice” of the Kojiki, beautifully translated by Yoko Danno. She herself is a Japanese poet of long standing who writes soley in English and her own poems have a strong flavor of the fairytale and of natural magic. It is easy to see why rewriting the Kojiki in English would appeal to her, for the book is a treasure trove of early Japanese poems and fables. Composed in AD 712, the Kojiki (or Record of Ancient Matters) is Japan’s oldest book and traditionally is said to include not only the oldest Japanse poem but also the oldest example of renga or linked verse. Certainly it is the earliest example of the fine Japanese tradition of including verse within a prose narrative for moments of high lyrical expression. Typically these rough-hewn verses express erotic desire. Take for example the warlord Yamato Takeru’s song to his new wife Miyazu-hime.
Across the heavenly mountain, Kagu-yama in Yamato, fly Long-necked swans, calling Keenly like sickles. Your white arms, Slender and pliant Like the neck of a swan I wish to pillow my head On your long white arm, I wish to sleep with You, but on the hem Of your outer garment The moon has risen.
Has there ever been a more graceful expression of a man’s frustration upon finding that his bride is menstruating? On another occasion, the exiled Yamato Takeru now dying, sings wistfully and movingly of the homeland to which he cannot return:
Is the heart
Of my country secluded
In the mountains within mountains;
The blue-green hedges in array.
How beautiful is Yamato!
The warlord continues to sing of his home country until he dies, whereupon he is magically transformed into a giant white bird. The image of his many wives and children pursuing the bird through the fields as it flies away across the sea is a haunting one. But there are many such memorable scenes in the Kojiki. Within this rag-tag collection of myths and fables, folkloric histories and verse you will find the Japanese creation myth; how the lands and their emperors were literally birthed by the gods; how the storm god Susanowo wrecked heaven and was exiled for his mischief; how the first emperor Jimmu subdued the country and its chthonic deities; how the Karu siblings fell into a doomed romance and how the cheeky white rabbit of Inaba tricked the sharks of Cape Keta but then made the terrible error of telling them so… And much, much more!
Now the Kojiki has been translated many times before, but it is notorious even in translation for being a horrible read. My own copy of Donald L. Philippi’s translation stands testament to this, remaining largely unread on my bookshelf for over a decade. Philippi’s translation is the thorough work of a perfectionist; a weighty tome with thousands of explanatory notes and plentiful appendices. No doubt for the academic it is invaluable, but for the general reader it is a chore. Yoko Danno’s concern, on the other hand, is not to teach but to tell a story and she does so by very simple means. Endlessly confusing lists of names are removed and replaced by easily referenced genealogical tables. Instead of a confusing myriad of lengthy names and titles she chooses one simplified name for each character and sticks to it. She keeps her explanatory notes to a minimum. And she rewrites the songs and stories with her own poetic grace.
Yoko Danno’s stated aims in translating the Kojiki are “to convey as best I could the simple, dynamic and lyrical voice of the ancient people”. She has done a magnificent job. Thanks to her I have now read the Kojiki in its entirety – and enjoyed it too! Songs and Stories of the Kojiki as retold by Yoko Danno offers us a fascinating glimpse into an ancient culture, its legends and beliefs. I highly recommend it.
Over the past few years I’ve gotten into the habit of buying The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror as December approaches. It’s a great big fat hunk of a book, about 40 stories and poems, and lots of chewy meat and potatoes in there. I always enjoy it. It’s reliably really good. So I thought I’d do the same just before last Christmas. Didn’t work out that way though. There was no Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror in 2009. And after a bit of internet research I discovered only this: after 21 years of compiling and winning awards the editorial team behind it were “on hiatus”. No reasons given as to why… What a pity.
However, I also discovered that Ellen Datlow, one member of the aforementioned award winning editorial team, had gone it alone and started her own new series with The Best Horror of the Year Volume One. A slimmer volume this one, only 21 stories and poems, and the fantasy element seemingly ditched… “Well, why not?” I thought, “Now’s the perfect time to read it!” I like a bit of spine-spooking tingliness in the dark corner of the year… So I ordered it. And over the winter break I read it through. And I enjoyed it (mostly) too. There’s a lot of fine crafted and deeply absorbing stories in there. Some absolute gems in fact. It’s a good compilation. I just have one teeny tiny (and perhaps pedantic) quibble about it and that’s about the use of the word Horror. A fair percentage of the stories didn’t strike me as being particularly scary, – or even trying to be particularly scary. A horror story in order to be a horror story should do more than just evoke a vaguely creepy atmosphere, it ought to evoke feelings of shock, or fear, or foreboding, or revulsion – it ought to horrify you. But a fair few of the stories in this collection didn’t really do that at all. At best they might be described as Dark Fantasy… but not Horror. They were still good though mind you – they just didn’t inspire the level of dread that I was expecting from the cover title. It is a pedantic point though because I found only one story in the collection disatisfying, most of them praiseworthy and there were maybe three in there that were absolute classics of the genre.
Steve Duffy’s The Clay Party, describing a misguided journey into the wilderness (and into madness) has a Lovecraftian feel to it, though the horror in this tale comes from the vile actions of men and not monsters (in fact the monsters are alright). R. B. Russell’s story Loup-garou is perfect. Starting with a seemingly mundane tale of a run-of-the-mill guy going to see an old movie, by the end of the story everything has been turned on it’s head in shocking disorientation. Memory, identity, reality… nothing seems certain. Genius. And my favorite in the collection Adam Golaski’s The Man from the Peak, in a sense is an old story, but told so well. It lulls you in, then gradually dreamily and subtly creeps you out, and finally brings you face to face with – pure unadulterated bloody HORROR in the truest sense of the word. That one story alone is worth buying the collection for. It’s gruesome yet… DELICIOUS!
Every year in December I give myself a Christmas present. Throughout the year, when I see a book I want to read, I add it to my amazon wishlist and then wait… Then come December, I study the ridiculously long list it has become and ask myself “How much do I really want this?” and if I’m still interested, I order it just in time for Xmas and the winter holidays. Anyway we got our bonus last Thursday, I placed the order on Friday and seven of the books came today. Aren’t they lovely?
It’s an odd mix I suppose. I’ve enjoyed “The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror” collections in previous years but missed out in 2008 as Junkudo didn’t stock it, so I ordered that one. Then it seems the editor Ellen Datlow has gone solo with “The Best Horror of the Year 2009″ so I ordered that one too. I love to read something creepy at Christmas. The Van Gogh book – which is both beautiful and immense! – I bought because we’ve been doing a chapter on his life in reading class at school and I became intrigued and wanted to read and see more. As for the others they are mostly Japan or Kyoto related because I live here (and write a blog called Deep Kyoto) – so I figure I ought to really. Here are the first seven (plus a couple more that haven’t arrived yet) in a handy little browsable widget.
Throughout the year succesive waves of colour break upon the city. Plum and peach blossom heralds the more famous cherry, after which follow azalea and iris. In summer come hydrangea, water lily and lotus, while in autumn there are the “seven famous grasses” followed by the changing maple leaves. Winter sees the camelia as well as the rich red berries of the nandin. The annual round has won much admiration, for each season has endearing traits : the white-and-pink blossoms of spring; the glistening moss in the summer rains; the brilliant colours of the autumn leaves; and the sprinkling of snow on the winter mountains…
So you see, this is a very beautiful city I’m living in! It’s azalea (or つつじ；tsutsuji) season now. They come into bloom right after the cherry blossom has fallen and as they are commonly used in hedgerows about the city, the sheer quantity of the blossoms is awesome. Here are some I snapped at Nishi-Honganji on my way home from work last week.
I love these flowers. They seem to glow even on the gloomiest days with a soft light of their own. Something to cheer you up even on a rainy day like today.
I think you need to be mad. You need a certain amount of slightly focused madness that’s also belief in yourself in the face of all opposition. Without it, I would never have actually become a writer. I started out, sent things into the world, and the world sent them back explaining how they were not quite right for us. You need the kind of crazed, manic belief in yourself that means you can just keep going. LINK
Slightly focussed madness! Marvellous! Over Christmas I ordered and read in a very short space of time Neil Gaiman’s latest: The Graveyard Book. This story inspired by Kipling’s The Jungle Books but with a novel twist (this boy is raised by spooks and ghouls in a graveyard) recently won the Newbery Award, basically the most prestigious award there is for children’s fiction. I’d say he deserves it. (You can read his immediate NSFW but exuberant reaction here.) It’s a nice book. A book about growing up, and about friendship, and about family but mostly about how people look after each other. I liked it a lot. I was pleased to hear Neil Jordan is planning to direct a film adaptation. Pretty soon we will be able to see a film adaptation of another work by Mr. Gaiman: Coraline. Having recently read that one (online for free!) I look forward to that too. Here is a most excellently creepy trailer featuring Mr. Neil Gaiman (himself) that is destined to be a classic in its own right:
If you really want to know about it, about J.D. Salinger’s lousy book and his goddamn themes of alienation and teenage angst and all that intellectual crap then I suggest you read it yourself, because I don’t feel like discussing it much to be honest. You have to be in the mood for that kind of thing, you really do and that stuff just depresses me anyway. I’m not going to tell you about any themes or anything. I’ll just tell you about that character Holden Caulfield, because he has sort of gotten in my head now and his voice is kind of catching in a way. Read too much of him and you start thinking like the bastard. He’s pretty repetetive like that, going on about phonies and all, all the goddam time and cussing so much in that 1950s sort of way. Thing is half the time you end up agreeing with him, or even all the time, that’s what really kills me. I mean, if you want to know the truth, I had to read it in short little bits, because if I read too much in one go, I’d get sort of sick feeling, like I was going to vomit, it was making me feel so lousy that way. My friend asked me why I was even reading it, if it made me feel so lousy and all, and I said “Because it’s a goddam classic”. I really did. And the funny thing is, I sort of meant it at the time too and it’s such a phony reason to read something. But I guess I’m sort of a phony that way sometimes too. Holden Caulfield kind of showed me that I guess. And it’s funny, but I sort of felt better after I finished it, like I’d gone through something and come out the other side. But that Holden Caulfield, boy is he brutal. I mean, don’t get me wrong, he’s depressing all right, boy is he in bad shape. But he’s so goddam honest too. You gotta hand it to him. He’s a goddam madman like that with the honesty. I swear to God, he kills me.