Friday, July 13, 2007

The Tenth Night, by Natsume Soseki

Among the Japanese texts I studied at university was Yume Juuya (Ten Nights of Dream), by Natsume Soseki. One of Soseki's lesser known works, this is a cycle of ten stories, which, as the title suggests, are all dreams. At last, the ending "and it was all a dream" becomes so appropriate that it actually goes without saying. In fact, what better ending for a story (any story?) could there be? Talk about deconstructionism! (Well, maybe later.) As a matter of fact, there are some great tales from what was once called the Orient that end, quite superbly, with the revelation that the entire action of the story had only been a dream. The stories in this cycle, however, don't end with such a revelation, but begin from that very premise. Apart from the title of the work, four of the ten stories reinforce this premise by beginning with the phrase "Konna yume wo mita": literally, "I had this sort of dream" or "I had a dream like this".

These tales are proof that a story does not need to 'make sense' to be powerful. They are a significant addition to the literature of dreams, which extends from antiquity, and, for instance, Chuang Tse dreaming he was a butterfly (of which there will certainly be more later), to the present day, and the likes of Burroughs' wonderful, My Education: A Book of Dreams. They also have a special place in Soseki's own oeuvre, revealing, as they do, the dark subconscious areas that gave the ordered rooms of his better known fiction the shadows of depth and suggestion that made them fascinating.

I have translated three of these tales (second, seventh and tenth). At least two of them I submitted to the now defunct magazine Dreamzone, because I thought them appropriate. The editor, Paul Bradshaw, a true lover of the bizarre, seemed to agree, and published them in one issue after another. I noticed in the letters column, however, that even those who supposedly loved dreams often seemed to want their dreams sanitised or lobotomised. There were a number of letters of the "What was that all about?" variety. This was one of many signs to me that I had strayed from the suburbs of literature that most readers and writers (whether of genre fiction or classics, prize-winning contemporary authors or blockbusters) seem unquestioningly to inhabit. I don't know quite where this place is that I have ended up. It is a place overgrown with nameless weeds. I think, however, that's the way I like it.

Anyway, let me now present what is perhaps my favourite story from Yume Juuya, 'The Tenth Night' (By the way, if anyone knows who the recitalist Kumoemon is, could they let me know?):

The Tenth Night

Ken-san came round to tell me the news. On the evening of the seventh day since he had been abducted by a woman, Shotaro had suddenly returned, collapsed with a fever, and was now confined to bed. Shotaro was the most dashing and well-liked man in the town. He was also extremely good-natured and honest. He had but one foible. When evening came he would don his panama hat, take a seat in front of the fruit shop and gaze in unceasing admiration at the faces of the passing women. Apart from that he had no idiosyncrasies to speak of.

At times when there were few women passing he would transfer his attention from the passers-by to the fruit. The fruit was of various kinds. Peaches, apples, loquats, bananas and so forth were piled up beautifully in baskets and arranged in two rows, ready to be bought as a gift and taken away in a trice. Shotaro would look at this display and comment on how splendid it was. “If one is setting up shop, then it’s got to be a fruit shop!” he would say. However, he himself merely loafed about in his panama.

He would even hold forth on the tangerines, saying, “This is a fine colour,” and so on. But he had never once put his money where his mouth was and actually bought any of the fruit. And, of course, you cannot eat fruit for nothing. All he ever did was praise their colours.

One evening a woman appeared in front of the shop. She looked like a woman of breeding and her clothes were of the finest. Shotaro was very taken with the colour of her kimono. On top of that, he was also marvellously impressed with the woman’s face. And so he doffed his precious panama and greeted her courteously. The woman pointed to the very biggest basket of fruit, saying, “This one please.” At which Shotaro immediately picked up the basket and handed it to her. The woman hefted its weight in her hand.

“It’s terribly heavy,” she said.

Shotaro, being essentially a person of leisure, and moreover, an exceedingly sociable gent, said, “Well, let’s carry it home for you, shall we?” And with that he and the woman left the shop. They left, and did not return.

Even for someone as happy-go-lucky as Shotaro this behaviour was too much. “This is beyond a joke!” said his friends and relatives, and made a great fuss. Then, on the seventh evening, all of a sudden, he returned. When everyone swarmed round to visit him and asked where on Earth he had got to, Shotaro replied that he and the woman had taken a train to the mountains.

It must have been a very long journey. According to Shotaro’s story they alighted from the train and stepped directly into a field. The field was immensely broad and wherever they turned their gaze there was nothing but green grass. They walked together over the grass until they came suddenly to the edge of a cliff, when the woman said to Shotaro, “Would you be so kind as to jump off here?”

Shotaro peered over the edge. He could see the cliff face, but not the bottom. Once again Shotaro removed his panama and thrice declined the woman’s invitation. At this the woman said, “If you do not go ahead and take the plunge, you will be licked by a pig. Well? Do you understand?”

The two things Shotaro hated most in the world were pigs and the recitalist Kumoemon. However, thinking his aversion not worth dying for, Shotaro, as might be expected, declined to jump. Immediately a pig came snorting in his direction. Shotaro had no choice but to strike the swine upon the tip if its snout with the slender cane of betel-nut palm that he carried. Squealing, the pig toppled over the edge, tumbling to the bottom of the cliff.

Just as Shotaro counted ‘one’ with a sigh of relief, another swine came rushing in, intent on rubbing its huge snout against him. With no time to do anything else, Shotaro once again wielded his cane. The pig squealed and, just like its predecessor, tumbled head over heels to the bottom of the precipice. No sooner had it done so than another appeared. This time, suddenly, something caught Shotaro’s attention. Looking up he saw, from the farthest reaches of the grassy green meadow, what must have been tens of thousands of pigs – more than he could count – all in a straight line, bearing down in a snorting melee upon Shotaro, where he stood at the head of the cliff. He felt terror in the deepest chamber of his heart. However, there was nothing he could do, and so he just went on neatly striking the swine on the tips of their snouts, one by one, with the betel-nut cane. Strangely, all he had to do was give them the merest tap on the nose and they toppled over, tumbling to the bottom of the chasm below. Peering over the edge he could see a line of pigs disappearing, head over heels, into what seemed to be bottomless space. When he thought that he had propelled this many pigs into the chasm, he himself grew afraid. But the pigs kept on coming, one after the other. With a power as if black clouds had grown feet and were ploughing through the grass, they came snorting on, inexhaustible.

Shotaro marshalled his courage in desperation, and continued to strike the pigs’ snouts for seven days and six nights. But at last, his spirit utterly used up, his hands weak as jelly, he was licked by a pig. Then he collapsed upon the cliff edge.

Ken-san told Shotaro’s story thus far and said, “And so you see, it doesn’t do to chase after women too much.”

I, too, thought this was a reasonable conclusion. However, Ken-san said that he wanted Shotaro’s panama hat.

Shotaro was beyond help. The panama was rightfully Ken-san’s now.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Justin Isis - No One Was Quite Certain When the Whole "Waffle Cone" Thing Started Getting out of Hand

Upset at his wife having left him, Mr. Terajima decided to commit suicide by eating himself to death at a Chinese buffet. He had always been fascinated by the threshold of consumption, the point at which the body recoils from the prospect of more food. The process of satisfying hunger, he felt, held a particular poignant sadness. It was such a short time, after all, before one turned away in indifference or disgust from what had previously inflamed the appetite. Such a brief period of satisfaction. If only one could remain at the moment of first taste...

But tonight, Mr. Terajima thought as he walked into the Jade Garden, I will not turn away in disgust. I will continue to eat; I will wring every drop of joy from my plate, and in the process expire. I will taste more than most ever do, and what better way than that to depart?

As a waitress showed him to his table, Mr. Terajima watched her retreating backside. There had been something about her face, too. He hadn't seen one like her in a long time. At these times, he was overcome by a sense of wistful hopelessness. These stillborn desires with nowhere to go. Nothing would happen, and by tomorrow he would forget her. The Mongolian beef looked nice, he thought.

Mr. Terajima had looked in the mirror that morning and realized that he was aging. To make things worse, he looked completely ordinary - no matter how well he dressed, it was impossible to mistake him for anything other than a middle-aged man. Even his hair was thinning.

The waitress returned with a teapot, but by now he was already at the buffet. Denied a closer view of her. She smiled professionally as she saw him watching. Mr. Terajima turned back and began to fill his empty plate.

He helped himself to bowl after bowl of wonton soup. He gulped down hot tea and let it burn his tongue. He stuffed himself with noodles, fried rice, sweet and sour pork; went back to the buffet and ladled on lurid pink sauces. He'd been right about the Mongolian beef. He could hardly keep himself from shoveling it into his mouth.

Soon he was full. There was still meat and rice and soup in front of him but he didn't want any of it. His belt seemed tighter already. He lost his ambition to eat. He lost his ambition to die.

Indeed - what had he been thinking? Had he really believed that he wouldn't make it to work on time tomorrow? He'd spend more time in the bathroom tomorrow morning, that's all. The same office, the same cup of coffee, and when he returned, to watch the news, the same programmes, sitting in the cracked leather chair, Midori making his dinner, Midori, Midori, Midori-

He signalled. The waitress returned with a bill and a fortune cookie. Mr. Terajima unwrapped the latter. The white edge of the message paper protruded from the cookie's lip. Mr. Terajima drew it out without cracking the cookie, his preferred method since childhood. The process always reminded him of defusing a mine, or removing the pin from a grenade. He looked down at the tiny scroll.

Please do not eat me. I am

Mr. Terajima turned it over in his hands. He supposed it was a joke - what kind of fortune was that? On the back, random numbers. No clue. He made to crack the cookie.
Something caught his eye. Something white sticking out of the cookie. Another fortune? It must have been some kind of factory mistake. He drew it out. Maybe he'd have better luck this time.

alive. This is not a joke. I

Mr. Terajima arched his back. Definitely a joke. But what was the trick? Was the cookie simply stuffed with messages? Sure enough, as he looked down, he noticed a white edge that hadn't been there before.

realize how extraordinary this is. But

He tossed the cookie in his hand; it didn't seem especially heavy. He wondered how many more messages were inside.

please believe me. Have compassion for

Another one. He drew them out one by one now, like a magician with scarves in his sleeve.

my situation. I repeat, this is the truth. If you would like proof, please ask me a question.

"My wife's name," he said, "Is Midori. What's my wife's name?"

Midori. It is a very beautiful name.

Mr. Terajima sighed. There was no reason for anyone to be doing this to him, but it was either that, or he was witnessing a miracle. Neither prospect impressed him much. But he decided to play along.

"This is unbelievable," he said, after looking around the restaurant. There were only a few customers, but he didn't want anyone to see him. "How can you be alive? Where did you come from?"

I remember being in the dark, wrapped in plastic. I was in a box with others like me, but none were responsive. Perhaps I have been reincarnated?

"Maybe," said Mr. Terajima. Best to keep his responses short. A group of young people had just came in - no need to give them anything to stare at. "Okay, I won't eat you. Actually..."

This was something that could make him rich.This was something that could make him famous. Televised interviews...all sorts of publicity for the company. Make the cookie a mascot, maybe? Instant recognition, ubiquitous stuffed toys...Midori watching him on television.

"Actually, I think we should go public." he said. "Maybe we could go into business together."

Please explain.

"Well, a talking fortune's not something you see every day."

Apart from the novelty of my existence, I'm afraid that very little about me is interesting. Until I've learned more about myself, I don't feel that I can be of any help to you in that matter. I apologize.

Mr. Terajima wasn't especially disappointed - this being a joke, after all, it had to be a joke - but was it really necessary to use six messages to convey this rather formal rejection? The tabletop was covered with tiny scrolls. He supposed the cookie was afraid a simple "no" would have led to him snapping it, but its obsequiousness grated on him - he'd seen it all too many times in his subordinates when they wanted something.

"Well, now that we've gotten business out of the way, I'm afraid I have to be going," he said. He almost wanted to ask for another fortune cookie. He'd always liked the taste. He took out the next message.

What is your name?

So the cookie was becoming personable after all.

"Naoki Terajima."

How are you tonight, Mr. Terajima?

"Depressed? I don't know. I don't feel too bad, I guess. I came in here on some kind of whim that I was just going to start eating and not stop," he said, looking down at the empty plates, "I don't know what I was thinking. I feel sick already. I'll probably just go home, maybe rent a movie..."

That situation is not very likely. At the most, you would end up vomiting or losing consciousness.

"Yes. I know."

That seems rather irrational to me, Mr. Terajima. Why would you want to do something like that?.

He was about to start telling the Midori story when the waitress returned and asked him if everything was all right. Had she seen him talking to himself? Even though she'd never see him again and there was nothing between them now, he couldn't stand the thought of her thinking there was anything the matter with him. What was it about her face? It...Natsuki Ogawa from high school had had a face like that. The sharp cheekbones, and the same bearing, how she seemed to be looking beyond him even when she smiled. Natsuki Ogawa from the swim team, wishing for her picture on those dark afternoons spent wrapped in himself, the radio blaring foreign songs in his half-lit room... The waitress disappeared into the kitchen.

"Well," he said, "I've always been slightly depressed most of my life. I used to think that I was afraid of dying or troubled by the meaninglessness of life, but just now I realized that most of it comes from not being able to have sex with whoever I want, whenever I want to."

There - it was out in the open now. Mr. Terajima felt a tremendous sense of liberation - until he realized he was whispering his secrets to a fortune cookie in a second rate Chinese restaurant.

Would the ability to have sex with whoever you want to whenever you want to relieve this sense of hopelessness?

"Yes, yes it would!" Mr. Terajima said, lowering his face to the cookie. If miracles could be as banal as this, was it too much to hope for? "Would it be possible...could we make some kind of bargain? I'm a very wealthy man. I don't know what you are, but, there are other things, services I could provide. Even devotions, sacrifices...what is it you want?"

He reeled out the message scroll by scroll, waiting until he had the whole thing assembled on the table before reading it. He could feel his heart beating. Hadn't Midori said something about that, too?

I'm sorry to disappoint you again, but my abilities don't extend much further than providing messages on these small pieces of paper. As a sentient cookie, I can't help you with your problems. All I can offer is my moral support.

Mr. Terajima picked up the fortune cookie and snapped it in half.