BOOK REVIEW: Narrow Road to the Interior: And Other Writings by Matsuo Bashō

Narrow Road to the Interior: And Other WritingsNarrow Road to the Interior: And Other Writings by Bashō Matsuo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Bashō was a traveler, and much of his poetry came from what he witnessed and experienced on the road. This volume contains four travelogues (each containing interspersed haiku); the most famous of these being the title piece, but also including: “Travelogue of Weather-Beaten Bones,” “The Knapsack Notebook,” and “Sarashima Travelogue.” In addition to the travel writings, there is a section of select Bashō poems. The word “travelogue” may create a misapprehension. These weren’t diaries of the minutiae of his travels. They offer a poet’s eye view of highlights and insights, and—of course—interspersed poems. [There is a term for this genre of prose mixed with poetry, haibun.]

Matsuo Bashō was born in Iga-Ueno (famously a center of ninja warriors during the Warring States Period), and traveled extensively within Japan. He lived from 1644 to 1694, during the time between the end of the Warring States Period and the Meiji Restoration that brought Japan into modernity. It was a period of relative peace ruled by a military dictatorship, lying in the long shadow of war. Zen touches are prevalent throughout Bashō’s writings, but so are references to Chinese philosophy and history, Shinto, not to mention the Japanese poets who preceded him.

In addition to the aforementioned content, the book includes some nice ancillary features. First, there is a Translator’s Introduction that helps provide necessary context about Bashō’s life and times, as well as offering insight into what was valued in Japanese poetry of this time–including influences of systems like Zen, Taoism, and Confucianism. There is an Afterword describing the last years of Bashō’s life, as well as end-notes and a bibliography. Notes are useful for this type of book because most readers face both cultural and historical barriers to understanding (myself included.) As for graphics, there is a map to help readers grasp the extent of the poet’s travels. There is also a chronology to help keep the events of Bashō’s life—most notably the timeline of his travels—straight.

I’m not sure how the translator’s (Sam Hamill) version compares to an ideal, but I enjoyed it. For example, Bashō refers to an innkeeper called Hotoke Gozaemon, which Hamill translates as “Joe Buddha.” I suspect that is an example of veering away from literal translation to communicate an essence in a way that is readily grasped by the English-language reader. Some of the haiku translations seem clunky, but it’s extremely hard to put haiku into English, so I can’t say it could be avoided. English syllables and words can be chunky and our grammar doesn’t lend itself to being sparse. I will say that a nice feature of the “Selected Haiku” section is that it includes the Romanized Japanese poem under the translation. This isn’t done throughout the haibun “travelogues,” but it’s done in that last section. The main benefit of this is allowing the reader to hear the sound of the poem, but it can also allow one to compare different translations of the same poem.

There are several translations of these same writings available (often gathered together into a single volume like this because it makes for an acceptable length book–rather than the pamphlets that the individual haibun would be.) This is the only version that I’ve read to date, and so I can’t compare it to others. However, I was quite pleased with this version and found it to be both readable and evocative.

I’d recommend this book for haiku lovers, travelers, and those who want to see what awesome travel writing can look like.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Taiheiki trans. / ed. by Helen Craig McCullough

TaiheikiTaiheiki by Helen Craig McCullough
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Let me be blunt, “The Taiheiki” isn’t a book you pick up to read a gripping story. While it’s considered a work of fiction, it reads like a history. In some sense, it is a history. It does follow the broad brush strokes of the events in Japan in the early 14th century. However, there are way too many characters to keep track of, or to remember who is on the side of whom, or even to know whether a given individual is worth remembering or whether they’ll soon die an ignominious death. If you don’t believe me, here are the words of the book’s translator and editor, “In short, the ‘gunki monogatari’ [the war tales of which ‘The Taiheiki’ is one] are not great literature. But the best of them are worth reading.”

I agree with McCullough’s point about these books (and this one in particular) being worth reading, but I would add an “if.” “The Taiheiki” is worth reading, if you have an interest in medieval Japan, samurai, or civil war life. The time period in question was fascinating, and it was characterized by war and intrigue. The Hōjō clan was ousted. (They were the military clan that administered the government.) A compromise had been in effect in which the mantle of Emperor was to be alternated between two opposing lines. However, an ambitious Emperor Go-Daigo refused to relinquish the title, and this led to a war between the courts. It’s a story of both warriors of legendary loyalty (most famously, Kusunoki Masashige) and those of shifting loyalties.

While the book is too fractured to form a clear and interesting story overall, that doesn’t mean it isn’t filled with intriguing episodes of battles, espionage, siege warfare, and even the occasional ghost or goblin story. There are many interesting individuals that are dealt with in sufficient detail to make them intriguing—the aforementioned Kusunoki Masashige stands out among them. The book offers insight into the medieval Japanese mind and to some degree the modern mind as well. There are discussions of philosophy and strategy worked into the narrative that help one to understand from whence the individuals were coming.

The book has a few features that help non-expert readers. The first is an extensive introduction written by Dr. McCullough that serves to provide background for the book and the era in which it took place. The second is frequent footnoting. There are also several plates of artworks and photos interspersed throughout the book. These help the reader visualize the environs and how these individuals would have looked.

If you have an interest in medieval Japan, in samurai, in ninja, or even in pre-modern war generally, I’d recommend this book. (If you’re looking for a gripping tale of intrigue set in 14th century Japan, not so much.)

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