Monday, April 18, 2011

"How can this be?"

The Moon Over the Mountain
By Atsushi Nakajima
Translated from Japanese by Paul McCarthy and Nobuko Ochner
165 pages
Autumn Hill Books
March 1, 2011

People seemed to concede that evil might prosper for a time, but in the end there would be just retribution. Of course that might occur, but would that not merely confirm the truth that human beings were doomed? . . . What was the reason for this sad state of affairs? . . . "What is this Heaven people talk about? Doesn't Heaven see what's going on? And if Heaven decides men's fates like this, how am I supposed to keep from rebelling against it? Does Heaven fail to distinguish between the good and the bad, just as it ignores the distinction between men and beasts? Is everything - even righteousness and wickedness - relative, with man alone the measure of all things?"
("The Disciple")

He may have died in obscurity, but today Atsushi Nakajima (1909-1942) is both a cult figure and a canonized literary great. He is standard reading in high schools and colleges, and there is even a festival held annually in his honor. More recently, a young actor named Nomura Mansai produced a dramatic performance of several Nakajima stories in the classical Ky├┤gen style, which developed in the medieval era as comic shorts inserted between serious dramas. The stories themselves, however, are not Japanese but Chinese in setting and inspiration. Nakajima is regarded as a master of a sub-genre popular in Japan for generations: that of the fictional work set in ancient China.

The relationship of Chinese culture to Japan is analogous to Graeco-Roman influence in the West, down to the Japanese adaptation of Chinese characters, which has intriguing parallels to use of the Latin alphabet in modern European languages. For centuries the educated Japanese man would be expected to know such Chinese classics as the texts of Confucius, The Historical Record (Shiji) by Sima Qian (145-86 BCE), The Spring and Autumn Annals, and the Daoist works of Laozi and Zhuangzi. In finding inspiration from Chinese history, mythology, folklore, and philosophy, Atsushi Nakajima was part of a tradition stretching back millennia. Writers in this particular area are afforded great respect in Japan, yet Nakajima's stories have never until now appeared in English.

Released by Autumn Hill Books in March, The Moon Over the Mountain (translated by Paul McCarthy and Nobuko Ochner) consists of the following:

"The Moon Over the Mountain"
"The Master"
"The Bull Man"
"The Disciple"
"The Rebirth of Wujing"
"Waxing and Waning"
"Li Ling"
"On Admiration: Notes by Monk Wujing"

Though comparable to the contemporary development of existentialism in the West, Nakajima's works tend to take a holistic stance and place the protagonist in the context of a vast universe ruled by fate.

This is usually manifested by society, in the actions of other people. In "Li Ling," the war between Han China and the Huns becomes a study in the unpredictability of high politics, which operates not unlike Kafka's concept of bureaucracy. Brave and noble men such as the general Li Ling and the Court Historian Sima Qian are unjustly ensnared and chewed out by the caprices of a despotic emperor and his sycophantic courtiers. "Forebodings" is downright sexist, as a reserved woman named Xiaji becomes a pawn in various power struggles merely by existing. She is a passive character, a complete non-being in fact, yet is somehow to blame for the downfall of several prominent men. Kuai Kui, Duke of Wei, is unusual in that he is both the protagonist of "Waxing and Waning" and the puppetmaster of people's fates himself. The story follows the twists and turns of his exile, return, and rise to dominance, throughout which he also punishes loyal subjects and becomes a tyrant. In doing so, however, he only learns that for all his might, he is still nothing more than a cog in the vast political machine, which has very much a life of its own.

Injustice and corruption arise from excess, which is defined as the overwhelming focus on one aspect of one's being to the neglect of others. It is a deformity of character that grows monstrous. The titular story tells of an aspiring poet whose egotism and obsession with his craft, to the detriment of his family's welfare, transformed him into a man-eating tiger whose humanity is increasingly submerged. In "The Rebirth of Wujing," there are literal monsters at the bottom of the River of Flowing Sand who are "gluttons; therefore, their mouths and stomachs were inordinately large. Others were lascivious, and so their genitalia had developed obscenely. There were others who prided themselves on intellectual purity, to the point that, aside from their heads, their bodies had atrophied." Figurative monsters appear in the more realistic tales. Among the aristocracy, violent power struggles are the norm. Men caught up in the fore are castrated or executed by being tied to two chariots and pulled apart, often for unjust or trivial reasons, in an ongoing cycle of death that even the wisdom of Confucius cannot penetrate. The catastrophic events of "Li Ling" eventually force both the reader and title character to wonder at the definition of "barbarian": "At times he would suddenly feel himself to be a mere speck between earth and sky, and wonder why in heaven's name there were such distinctions as Han and Hun." A poignant question considering the tumultuous era in which Nakajima was writing and the actions perpetuated by cultures proclaiming themselves the superior.

Atsushi Nakajima died of an asthma attack as World War II raged, having arisen from a previous bloodbath whose scale forced a reconsideration of the individual and their place in society. In Japan as elsewhere, literature at this time was censored and writers were pressured to extol the virtues of the Japanese government. Nakajima's soul-searching found refuge in a distant time and place, his years of classical study forming the basis of delicately-crafted tales of art, learning, loneliness, cruelty, honor, metamorphosis, and the perpetual quest to find one's place in the universe. The translators' Afterword states that the original Japanese is a "classical, erudite style" that can make for difficult reading, but their English rendition is clear, unadorned, and accessible across cultures. Nakajima's themes are not uniquely Chinese or Japanese but universal, and The Moon Over the Mountain comes recommended.

I do have to say a word about Nakajima's portrayal of women. The only two female characters in the whole book are Xiaji in "Forebodings" and Old Madam Perch in "The Rebirth of Wujing," whose entire philosophy of life consists of fucking her male harem to death. Other women are mentioned only briefly in connection with "licentiousness" or "immoral relations." As such, Nakajima's ancient China is a world of men. They may be evil men or corrupt men, but they are nevertheless permitted a broad range of roles and personalities denied to women. For all his skill elsewhere, Atsushi Nakajima was quite the misogynist.

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Emily said...

It's interesting that you highlight the cultural legacy of ancient China in Japan, because the same thing just came up in conversation for me the other day. Apparently the Japanese tea ceremony is a descendant of a Chinese tea ceremony that is no longer practiced in China but which has been more or less preserved (with some changes I assume) in Japan. So interesting, since I think of the Japanese tea ceremony as being such a quintessential piece of Japanese culture. I like your parallel to Greco-Roman influence on Western culture.

And despite the misogyny, it sounds like Nakajima's work is worth checking out.

E. L. Fay said...

Another interesting parallel that occurred to me is in the American and Japanese treatment of their cultural forebears. For the longest time in the US, Greeks and Italians (Romans) were seen as inferior and "non-white." Similarly, Japan degraded China quite a bit during its imperialist years. I remember my Modern Japan professor showing us a Japanese cartoon from during their war with China in the early 1900s. It depicted the Chinese as really caricatured Asians, in the racist style you would have seen in the US in this period too. The Japanese, by contrast, were very Western-looking, with modern uniforms. And yet in both cases, you have to wonder where the American and Japanese cultures would be without these allegedly lesser people!

And about the misogyny - I think part of it is that the source material he was working was likely extremely sexist as well. But that still doesn't absolve Nakajima of responsibility.

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