Saturday, September 20, 2014
I started reading modern Japanese literature in Spanish translation because there were a couple of books I wanted to read that didn't seem to be available in English, but at this point I'm just doing it for fun — or perhaps in part because the psychological effect of reading a book in a foreign language — any foreign language — gives me the illusion that I'm reading it "the original," which in the case of Japanese is something I'm utterly unable to do. Plus I just like these editions from Satori in Spain. Putting aside such eccentricities, three of the four stories in Izumi Kyōka's El santo del monte Koya are readily available in English in a volume entitled Japanese Gothic Tales, translated by Charles Shirō Inouye and published by University of Hawaii Press.
And they're great stories, intricately told, shocking at times, richly atmospheric; each of them rewards — in fact demands — a second reading. I'll pass over the two shorter ones, as good as they are, and say a few words about the title story, which in Inouye's translation is called "The Holy Man of Mount Koya," and the novella-length "Un día de primavera" ("One Day in Spring"). Both can be found in the Inouye translation mentioned above.
The former follows a classic Japanese storytelling pattern: a lone traveler — here, a Buddhist monk — hiking through the remote countryside encounters a figure — in this case, a woman — who turns out to be other than what she appears. Kyōka, who died in 1939, was adept at nesting stories within stories, and the events in the tale are actually narrated by the monk to a traveling companion he shares a room with much later. As the monk recalls, during the original journey he had fallen in with a traveling salesman whose vulgar behavior had offended him; the two come to a fork in the road and the salesman chooses a path which, the monk is subsequently informed, will lead him to great danger, perhaps even certain death. After some hesitation, the monk decides that his Buddhist principles require that he set out to persuade the salesman to turn back, since allowing his personal antipathy to sway his duty towards the man would be a great sin. The route he thus follows subjects him to gruesome, skin-creeping horrors — told in vivid detail by Kyōka — but eventually he makes it through, only to find himself the guest of a kind of Japanese Circe, with whom he almost decides to remain forever.
As exemplary a tale as "The Holy Man of Mount Koya" is, it can't quite match the measured, uncanny beauty of "One Day in Spring." Again we have nested narratives, although in this case it is the frame-tale that involves a traveler, a lone figure who arrives at a remote temple and hears from the resident monk a bizarre tale about an earlier pilgrim, who had taken up residence in a nearby cottage and become obsessed with a beautiful woman with whom he had — in this world, at least — only the most fleeting of encounters. Drawn to an isolated spot by the sound of music, the pilgrim had witnessed an oneiric pageant in which he and the woman — or their semblances — appeared as the principle players; a few days later he is found drowned at the edge of the sea. Having heard this strange tale, the second traveler has his own encounter with the woman, then witnesses an appalling and unexpected denouement.
There's at least one additional collection of Kyōka's tales in English, also translated by Charles Inouye and published by the University of Hawaii Press; it's entitled In Light of Shadows: More Gothic Tales. I've ordered a copy.