EPS Review #89 - The Japanese Chronicles

by Nicolas Bouvier, tr Anne Dickerson, Mercury House 1992

Bouvier first came to Japan in 1955, as an itinerant, poor pre-hippie. Good for him. Japan was poor (ish) then, too. Bouvier lived in Tokyo and tried to make ends meet doing photography and journalism. I liked this book. It is French in a good way: evocative, sensual, philosophical, opinionated. His potted history of early Japan is the most interesting that I have read. I did not know, or had forgotten, that Buddhism arrived so bloodily, with plagues, the wily Soga clan, and a dead emperor, Kimei. Also surprising is the fact that Jesus arrived early in Japan, as Inro Bosatsu; likewise Sakyamuni traveled the other way, arriving in the west as St Josephat (a corruption of Bodhisat). In 1582 some young Japanese emissaries make it to Italy: they all become enamoured with western music.

Bouvier's own experiences are just as interesting. Here he is pulling an all-nighter writing an article with a Japanese friend, who speaks of the hard times right after the war, with so many dead. Wandering alone, he holed up in an abandoned hotel in a forest, where he met his wife:

"We have been here at Meguro since the New Year. My wife has waited to fall sick again until I make enough to care for her. I make almost one hundred thousand yen a month with the magazines and my translation, I drink up a third of that -- alcohol gives me a little space -- and the part that's left is more than enough to live on. With Rimifon she will get well. We are like air for one another now, light, transparent, indispensable. If she dies first, as she sometimes threatens, I would not remarry, and I would have a terrible time keeping my spirits up. Do you recall the poem that the princess Oku wrote over a thousand years ago?

'How my Lord
shall you clear
the mountains of autumn all alone
when it was so difficult
to cross them together?''

...We are kneeling face to face before a low table in their only room. I am editing an article that he placed for me yesterday afternoon and that we must deliver tomorrow. He translates the pages I hold out to him one by one onto a paper divided into four hundred rectangles -- one per ideogram. It is the last page; the sun is rising, we have worked all night, voices lowered because his wife and his daughter are asleep on a mat next to us. After supper was served, they left for the public baths, returned with hair still wet. "Oyasumi nasai sleep well." There they are, nice and warm under the eiderdown, rubbed down like young fillies; they twitch as they dream, their feet touch ours. The little girl is a marvel at seven - long chubby legs the color of gingerbread -- she draws apples in pastel like Cezanne. The mother has the smooth face of a phantom, wonderful hair that falls to her hips, a contained gaiety: her presence alone is a favor, she is the princess Oku. Yuji stretches, laughing while dawn paints with violet the cabbages that cast off in tight rows just under the open window. Before leaving for work, our neighbors, gray with sleep, scatter the contents of their lavatories in their garden patch. Yuji, he is a small man, dry and musical, as transparent as a snowflake. He has the look of an ether addict who enjoys himself and dances, with the pale and troubling lightness of someone who has passed through fire. I can easily see why someone bit his hand. When you meet a truly free person, you suddenly feel so silly, with all your travels and projects. .

I also really like the part about an odd museum that Bouvier sees in northern Hokkaido: "I think of the Louvre, that tomb. I tell myself that all museums should be like this one: flowing directly from the arteries of an old man who has a right to its objects..."

The translator deserves a lot of credit for the lovely prose. (Hah! I read some translated Google pages on Bouvier: he comes out as "Nicolas Herdsman" ).

Cover art by Toshi Yoshida. I like his stuff!

Wende wrote: Great pictures.

Tom wrote: I liked this.