Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories: Part 1

I continue my attempts to understand Japan, this time with a collection of short stories - which I am happy to see includes one by Murakami 'The Elephant Vanishes'.

The introduction to this volume, by Theodore W Goossen, is superb. The collection covers the twentieth century and classifies the works not just by stage in development, but also by theme. I am returning to it again and again as I read because it is so informative.

The first story is based on a sad traditional Japanese tale by Mori Ogai called 'Sansho the Steward'. Its theme is the nobility of sacrifice for the greater good - allegorical of Japanese Society as a whole. The second is by the author of Kokoro, Natsume Soseki and is called 'The Third Night'. This is more obviously allegorical and very short. A man carries his own child on his shoulders; a child he never sees but helps him to see the crimes of the past - representing the desertion of the culture of the old Japan.

'The Bonfire' takes the bonfire as its central theme and builds a story around that. A group of boys build a bonfire and light it with difficulty. When they leave a traveller rests awhile alongside it and he watches it slowly die away. I suspect that this too could be allegorical, but my knowledge of Japanese history is too insufficient for me to be able to tell - the descriptions of nature more than compensate in any case.

'Separate Ways' was written by a writer, Higuchi Ichiyo, who died very young, aged 24. It is about an obsessive, hopeless love shown through conversation. I am constantly surprised at prodigy.


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