Sunday, 4 October 2009

A Dark Night's Passing

Shiga Naoya's, 'A Dark Night Passing' is a book that I can't seem to see a readily available edition of in print, which is a little sad, although available through the usual second hand outlets. This edition is the Kodansha paperback, translated by Edwin McClellan. A novel in four parts, serialized mainly over the years 1921/22/23 in the magazine Kaizo, then the final segment was published in 1937. Although the book is, lets say,(in some parts), nearly approaching ninety years old, it still retains a modern feel. It's sometimes known as an 'I' novel, but there is maybe a little too much of the narrative mode to qualify. Well known for his short stories collected in 'The Paper Door and other Stories', 'A Dark Night's Passing' is his only novel to make it into English thus far.

The story is centred primarily around the character Kensaku, revealing different episodes in his life. As a child Kensaku's mother passes away, and he's moved into his grandfather's house, already in the house is Oei, who is senior to Kensaku by twenty years and is employed by the family to look after grandfather, also you are introduced to an array of characters who come to the house, usually to play cards. Kensaku's relationship with his father from his earliest memories has been strained, Kensaku recalls that once a playful fight turned nasty, his father tying his hands behind his back, and when Kensaku bursts out crying, his father tells him that he was only joking, and unties him, but Kensaku senses something maybe more malevolent in his father's eyes, the relationship with his father, and his mother that he never got to know are revealed piece by piece as the novel progresses. The story moves to Kensaku as a young writer, frequenting geisha houses, with high school friends, you learn that he has a brother Nobuyuki, who lives slightly beyond his means and two younger sisters, also that Kensaku had proposed marriage to Akio, but the offer was turned down by her family, the reason revealed later in the novel, the rebuff hurts Kensaku. When he tells his father of his proposal, his father's reaction is icy, telling Kensaku that it's his own business to sort out, unusal in that age, where the parents played a large hand in their childrens marital matters, and organised marriages. After more visits to a particular geisha house, Kensaku becomes enamoured by the geisha Tokiko, and it seems he can't summon the courage to act on his fascination for her, and the relationship fizzles out before it starts. Tokiko in the end can't seem to shake Kensaku out of his lethargic and directionless life in Tokyo.

In an effort to change his life and concentrate on his writing he decides to take the ferry and move to Onomichi, taking a tour of the local shrines and visits nearby islands. He finds a house, which needs a little work but he rents it, and his work starts well. He encounters the local prostitute, (a habit he had started back in Tokyo before leaving). After sometime his work rate slows and his listlessness returns, and he comes to the realization that he wants to marry Oei, even though she is twenty years his senior, and with his father's disinterest in his affairs, he concludes that it's the right thing. He writes a letter to his brother to put the proposal to Oei, days later he gets the reply from his brother that his proposal is turned down, his brother fearing that the rejection will depress Kensaku further, asks him to return to Tokyo, which he does. On his train ride back, Shiga Naoya gives a little portrait of a family on the train, there's diversions throughout the book, also on the ferry to Onomichi, an Australian returning home, these give the book a sometimes kaleidoscopic feel. Back in Tokyo his brother tells Kensaku another piece of the puzzle regarding the history of their family, regarding his parentage. Regardless of his proposal being turned down Kensaku decides to carry on living at the house with Oei, and his brother also tells him that he is going to quit his job and study Zen. After time Kensaku gets drawn to Kyoto with it's temples and history, and whilst walking he sees a woman working in a house close to his lodgings and falls for her immediately. Oei meanwhile has had an offer of moving abroad to work in a relative's business, and is set to leave soon, Kensaku decides to make the move to Kyoto to pursue the woman he saw.

The continuity of 'A Dark Night's Passing' doesn't seem to suffer too badly despite it being published in segments, the picture of pre-war Japan that it portrays when arranged marriages were more common, although that's not solely what the book is concerned about. Kensaku's situation in this regard tho' must have connected instantly with readers, not really mentioned in the book directly, but here's an insight into Miai. The novel gives an invaluable look at Japan at this time, given through Kensaku's eyes. Kensaku's search for a relationship that maybe will give meaning to his life is a compelling read.

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