Wednesday, 5 January 2011

The Moon over the Mountain

Nakajima Atsushi was born in Tokyo in 1909, his father came from a family of scholars specializing in the classics of ancient China, this was to influence not only his reading but would inform the majority of his writing. Newly published by Autumn Hill Books,a non profit independent publisher and translated by Paul McCarthy and Nobuko Ochner, (who also include an informative afterword on Nakajima), the stories selected in The Moon over the Mountain are mainly set in ancient China, the stories were originally published in Japan in the years 1942-43. After leaving Tokyo University Nakajima took up a teaching post whilst at the same time beginning to write short stories and starting a manuscript of his novel, Hikari to kaze to yume/Light, Wind and Dreams - a novella of the life of Robert Louis Stevenson, which was published in Japan 1942, the same year as Nakajima's premature death at the age of 33, Nakajima, who suffered from asthma died from pneumonia. Nakajima seems to be strikingly at odds from other writers of his time for not writing about the war.

The Moon Over the Mountain is the first collection of stories by Nakajima to appear in English, the first story Sangetsuki,which has also been known by the name The Tiger Poet is one of Nakajima's most well known stories, was studied in Japanese schools. A tale of a frustrated poet, Li Zheng, who gives up his post as a local official to devote himself to poetry, failing in his attempt to fulfill his life's desire of becoming a great poet he falls into madness and one night runs off into the wilderness after hearing his name being called. This violent emotional change within himself also appears to provoke a physical transformation. The narrative jumps forward slightly and takes up with Yuan Can an old acquaintance of Li Zheng who is travelling into an area known for being a domain for a wild tiger. After sometime Yuan Can's party hear the roar of a great tiger coming from the bush, but as they draw near Yuan Can can hear the sound of human sobs, Li Zheng begins to tell of his misfortune and Yuan Can begins to realize that it's his old friend Li Zheng who laments of his transformation. Transformation seems to thread in and out these stories, in the first it is seen as a manifestation of suffering and later in the story On Admiration: Notes by the Monk Wu Jing it appears as a well sought after craft. Nakajima's finely crafted stories blend existential inquiry with that of ancient Chinese story telling, where the human and animal world often mix,  in the story The Master a young archer who wants to master his skills turns out to be a danger to his tutor who refers him to a mountain hermit for further training, he's forced to learn how to 'shoot without shooting' in a story that turns the notion of learning on it's head. Many of the stories are set in the ancient Chinese state of Qi and tell of courtly intrigue and can be read as resembling morality tales, where those who appear to be the victims of wrong doing often find their end after being the perpetrators of wrong doing, the stories are far from predictable. As in the story Forebodings which begins with warriors comparing undergarments and ends with the states of Chu and Chen at war, at the centre of this narrative is the beguiling beauty of Xiaja whose beauty subtly commands a destructive power. Nakajima's stories often drop subtle clues and pointers which will often end up being the decisive thread within a story, as can be seen in Waxing and Waning which again concerns an exiled Duke and familial power games, the reader cannot afford to miss a line in Nakajima's finely written narratives.

These translations offer up to the English reader a great opportunity to explore a unique voice amongst Japanese literature, to read an excerpt from this collection follow the links through at the publishers website.

The Moon over the Mountain - Autumn Hill Books      

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