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.