Saturday, 23 November 2013

Lou-lan and Other Stories by Inoue Yasushi

Lou-lan and Other Stories is a collection of six stories by Inoue Yasushi, translated in an almost tag team kind of fashion by James T. Araki and Edward Seidensticker, published by Kodansha International, three stories are situated in ancient China and three have Japan as their setting. The first, the title story, Lou-lan, (translated by Seidensticker), traces the history of a remote town in a distant north western province of China beginning around 130 years BC, caught between many local warring factions and in addition the area is under threat by the expanding Han who send various emissaries and generals to the area intending to expand the empire. Throughout the story the name of Tun-Huang is mentioned on a number of occasions and incidences, but how the events of this story might overlap with those of the novel of the same name I'm not at all sure, but there are similarities in that Inoue expands the history of Lou-lan bringing it up to date with the re-discovery of it by the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin, as in Tun-Huang which also brings the story into the beginning of the twentieth century with the expeditions of Sir Aurel SteinLou-lan tells of the displacement of the people of Lou-lan and the suicide of a monarch discovered centuries later. Whilst reading the descriptions of Lou-lan another story came to mind that also has a remote Chinese settlement landscape at its centre, Takeshi Kaiko's Ruboki/Runaway first published in 1958 two years before Lo-lan appeared, Inoue's story has a broader historical panorama than Kaiko's, Inoue's stories have a subtle moral twist to them, as in the story Princess Yung-t'ai's Necklace, (translated by Seidensticker), another set in ancient China, which follows a group of grave robbers attempting to raid a tomb but are disturbed during the act, a subplot is that the ringleader's wife is having an affair with his brother, both of whom are keeping watch outside, as they hear the advancing troops the ringleader rushes back to grab the necklace, but the brother closes the tomb on him by rolling back a large stone doorway, this story also leaps forward in time by some centuries to the discovery of the skeletal remains with the necklace in its grasp. The second of the stories set in ancient China is The Sage, (translated by Araki), which also has the tone of being a morality tale, where an old blind sage who acts as an attendant to a holy spring is toppled by a young councillor who wants to change the old ways, but the changes bring about catastrophic events for the community, their moral tone resembles the stories of Nakajima Atsushi, many of which are also set in ancient China.
The first of the stories set in Japan is one centred around archaeology in, The Opaline Cup, (translated by Araki), whose narrator witnesses the bringing together for the first time in fourteen hundred years two ancient cups, the story has a subplot at the beginning which retraces the premature death of the narrator's sister, who the narrator was trying to organise her marriage to one of his friends. The second story The Rhododendrons, (translated by Seidensticker), is narrated by a slightly cantankerous elderly scholar, Shuntaro Miike, who runs away to the shore of Lake Biwa overlooking Mt.Hira. As he returns to his favourite inn, (the Reihokan), his past encounters and visits with the place are recalled. The initial object of his spleen venting is his immediate family who he sees as being too disrespectful although he notes they are quick to bask in the glory of his awards and achievements as a scholar, his major work is in the field of anthropology and anatomy, his magnum opus which he suspects he won't live to complete is The Arterial System of the Japanese, which he is writing in German - Anterin System der Japaneur, his two passions are research and liquor. The narrative again is one that retrospectively looks back at various episodes in his life, the relationship between a fellow student who vows to leave him his body for research in the event of his death, he talks about an angel of death being near him in his youth and recalls the case of Fujimura Masao, (featured also in Soseki's, Kusamakura). Another major incident that brought him to the inn at Lake Biwa is the suicide of his son, Keisuke, who had an affair resulting in the woman becoming pregnant, rather than obeying his father in forbidding him to see the woman again the pair kill themselves by drowning, the suicide of his son seems to act as a dichotomy between the narrator and his son.
The last story, Passage to Fudaraku, (translated by Araki), is set in the middle of the last millennium set around an ancient religious practice in the Kumano area, in particular the Fudarakusan-ji. The story follows the Abbot of the temple who is next in line to carry out the tradition of taking the journey to Fudaraku Island - in other words setting sail for the Pure Land to serve Kannon. Through the Abbot, Konko, we are told of the departures of the previous Abbots who have taken the trip, some first hand from his own memory, others from anecdote, the rule being that it's expected that the Abbot make the journey by the time he reaches age of 61, the Abbot travels alone in the vessel escorted as far as Tsunakiri Island and then set adrift out into the deeper sea. At the start of the story there is much anticipation as to when Konko will announce the date of his departure. Out of the previous Abbots there were stories that only one managed to return with extensive knowledge of the Pure Land, another before departing has visions of Fudaraku, observing that - 'these people don't age as they serve the Buddha', although with deepening trepidation Konko observes that the journey will only spell certain death. Konko's apprehension mounts as the day of his departure draws closer, he falls into an almost catatonic state, remaining silent when people visit him wanting him to pass messages on to the Buddha. If you're a Japanese reader you can read more about this tradition on the Japanese entry on the Fudaraku jinja, which gives more information on this religious practice, boats were leaden with stones representing sins, and as in the story the chamber that the Abbot or Priest occupied on the boat had no doors and was nailed to the boat. Also the boat was fitted with four Torii, (seen here), representing the four gates of the Pure Land. These stories open vistas into the past that trickle back into the modern world.

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