Tuesday, 7 May 2013

The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches


An unexpected read, not having read Matsuo Bashō previously this translation which was first published in 1966 by Nobuyuki Yuasa seems like a good place to start, it's accompanied by an introduction that spans a little over forty pages, although quite lengthy and detailed it feels that this remains only a glimpse into Bashō and the Japan of his age, it offers a brief history of Bashō's beginnings and the steps leading up to his travels, as well as contextualizing him with the poets that influenced him, along with the introduction there are an additional twenty pages of very informative notes at the end of the book which are a good spur to delve further into the times of Bashō, the early Edo or Tokugawa period. Within the introduction Yuasa observes that in Oku no Hosomichi, "Bashō has mastered the art of writing haibun so completely that prose and haiku illuminate each other like two mirrors held up facing each other. This is something no one before him was able to achieve, and for this reason, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is counted as one of the classics of Japanese Literature", if you're coming to   Bashō for the first time, like myself, an observation like this gives a clear indication of it's magnitude, and there is much about Bashō that I've yet to learn, to take things further Haruo Shirane's - Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory and the Poetry of  Bashō could make an informative next read.
This collection presents five pieces of haibun, (prose and poetry), the last being Oku no Hosomichi and also maps of the routes   Bashō took that produced them. Reading these sketches you can begin to find yourself amongst a set of  various differing elements, initially the juxtaposition of the pacing of the prose with that of the haiku, in a quote from Bashō he observes the difference between himself and other writers who include in their poems solely objects they encounter in their surroundings, or topographically observations, his poems appear to have a more singularity of vision, derived from experience on the road, things seen that has moved him. In Bashō it can be felt quite prominently that all is in flux, for him everything must have been in a state of near or continual change, not only things in his immediate field of vision, but also the larger picture of the changing of the seasons. Some of the haiku included are from companions that joined him on his travels as well as those of people who he lodged with, friends and family, fellow poets and priests living an ascetic existence, turning the back to the material life, one that Bashō also practised.

Although the Oku no Hosomichi seems to end quite abruptly the reader is faced with contemplating the pacing of the piece and also with the thought that the translation into English, (or maybe any other language outside of Japan), will never capture the lyrical nature of the original, you begin to think back on the sights and events that have been described by  Bashō, and to perhaps contemplate on which of them might have held the heaviest gravitational pull, perhaps the difficulty in such an endeavour points to a more profound quality to the piece. The aspect that marvels the most in Bashō is that in everything there is an awareness of his antithetical nature, the renunciation of conventional thinking, as the piece proceeds it's easy to put to the back of the mind the distances he is covering, until he mentions that the distance to Kaga Province, 加賀国 (modern day Ishikawa Prefecture), is a little over a hundred miles, you begin to turn again to the maps to reassess the lengths of his journey. There are a number of moments where the tug of the antithetical can be felt where on one occasion even a spot of moon viewing will fail to pull him out of a state of melancholy, and in another haiku, -

Bathed in such comfort,
In the balmy spring of Yamanaka,
I can do without plucking,
Life-preserving chrysanthemums.

Riddles within riddles in Bashō's haiku, in its abrupt ending another quality becomes apparent that although the journey is a spiritual one Bashō doesn't finish on a culminating summary of his walk, these remain in the haiku, the fleeting moments of his visions.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches at Penguin Books         

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