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.
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]
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.
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.
I just had the crappiest weekend imaginable: lots of places I wanted to be, lots of things I wanted to do, invites to parties etc… and I succumbed to a cold virus. I fell into bed on Friday and have only really managed to crawl out today. Unbelievable just how much I can sleep and still feel tired. So much for the Halloween-party weekend.
Ah well, now that I’m back up on my arse in front of this compoota what do I have for ye?
More links that’s what.
FINALLY (!) a fresh post up on you-know-what for Cafe Moley-moley-moley! Way behind schedule with that one.
Also, I spied this article on the BBC website today, that didn’t really tell me anything new but just re-confirmed my deep feelings of scorn, loathing and disrespect for the ever-useless Japanese police: J-pigs
It’s Halloween and time for scary stories. Up on WEEKENDAMERICA there are ten very very very short but scary stories for you to read or listen to (preferably the latter). I especially liked the first one by Paul Bibeau. It made me laugh, it did. Darkly.
However, if tales of terror are not your cup of tea how about a little cup of lurve? If you go to this TIMESONLINE page you can sign up to have five literary love-letters emailed to you by the likes of Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (no idea who the last dude is). I got my Margaret Atwood love-letter today. Typically, it wasn’t strictly speaking a love-letter, not as traditionally defined: a letter written by one person to another, informing the receiver that the writer loves him/her/it. No the writer cheated a bit there. Not only that, but it was maybe a little too clever and cynical to evoke any romantic feelings as such. But writers are meant to cheat and be cynical and clever, aren’t they? So I think I can forgive Mags her little indiscretions because after all it was rather fun. And actual love so often being not very much fun at all, I think I prefer the-thing-what-she-wrote-instead-of-a-love-letter anyway.