Thursday, November 03, 2022

Shuna's Jouney (2022)

First Second Books in the US has released the first authorized English-language translation of Hayao Miyazaki's 1983 full-color manga Shuna no tabi (Shuna's Journey). I've written about the original Japanese version at length before (link); I speak no Japanese but was able to follow the story with the help of earlier fan translations. The readable new translation, by Alex Dudok de Wit, clears up a few points in the narrative here and there. The New York Times has a review. I'll confine myself below to a few technical points about the reproduction.

The American edition, printed in Singapore, respects the layout and orientation of the Japanese edition, that is, printing it back-to-front from a US perspective. The trim size has been increased by about 50% with a noticeable but not glaring decrease in sharpness, and unlike the original, which was a paperback, the book has a hardcover binding, which makes it easier to see into the gutter. The paper stock isn't coated, however, and the color palette, particularly the lovely rich blues of Miyazaki's original, is a bit washed out. Whatever image processing magic was required to replace the Japanese text with English seems to have gone smoothly. Devotees may want to seek out the Japanese edition (ISBN 9784196695103), which should be obtainable for under $20, so that they can appreciate the full beauty of the original in tandem with this welcome and overdue translation.

Wednesday, November 02, 2022

Building Stonehenge (George Booth 1926-2022)

My favorite Booth cartoon, this one didn't appear in the New Yorker but in the business section of the New York Times, accompanying an article about corporate downsizing. I scanned it years ago but missed a sliver at the bottom.

Saturday, October 22, 2022


I'm standing on a great plain with no trees or buildings in sight, and I notice a faint hum of engine noise. I look up. Airplanes or airships that must be of enormous size, though they are barely dots because they are so high, are flying in formation across a crystalline, cloudless sky, leaving tiny, precise contrails miles above me. They seem not to have come from any of the cardinal points but simply to have descended from the stratosphere. As I watch I see white parachutes emerging, opening and hanging in the air like dandelion seeds, but the skydivers don't descend; they simply hover in space, dancing and parading together, held aloft no doubt by powerful high-altitude winds.

A crowd has gathered. I hear the cough of a police radio at my back and air-raid sirens somewhere in the distance. Strobe lights flicker. Military vehicles appear, steered by grim-faced men in helmets and dark glasses.

The aircraft are moving over our heads at what must be terrific speed, though from the ground they barely seem to creep. The parachutists, too, are drifting away, still whirling in tight patterns and showing no sign of coming to earth. The crowd thins and the vehicles race off and disappear from sight. The plain darkens as the sun falls behind distant mountains. All is quiet.


This was not a dream, although it seemed a bit like one at the time. On a beautiful fall afternoon I drove a few miles to one of my favorite haunts, a preserve of some 600 or so acres of woodland dotted with rocks and a couple of little ponds and streams. I brought my camera along as I usually do on my hikes, but there wasn't much to see except fallen leaves. I walked a couple of miles without meeting anyone else, then, having climbed a hill to the highest point in the preserve and briefly rested on a bench, I got set to head back.

I came to a place where the trail bends to the left and descends to what on the map is called a lake but is really just a modest pond. Just at the bend, though, I saw something that had never been there on my previous visits: a trail off to the right, clearly marked with red blazes on trees and carefully bordered with lengths of pruned branches. Intrigued, I started down the trail and followed it up to the top of a ridge, figuring that it couldn't take me very far out of my way. I continued along as it wound through the woods, crossed old stone walls, and wove around ancient outcroppings of rock. At one point I passed the remains of some kind of structure, though it would be hard to say just what it had been.
And the trail went on and on. I kept expecting it to loop back to the main trail, or if not, just to come to a dead end. But I started to think: What if it doesn't? What if it never comes back? What if it just keeps going?

I lost the trail once or twice because I was paying attention to the contours of the terrain instead of the blazes, but quickly found the right course again. Eventually I got a bead on where I was in relation to the rest of the preserve, and descended a series of what looked like old stone steps at the top of a long slope that, sure enough, met up with the main trail at an intersection that, like the first, had never been there before. I had detoured about a mile. An improvised sign posted at the intersection noted the opening of the trail, and the recent purchase of a new parcel of land that made it possible, but when I got back to the main kiosk at the parking lot the map there hadn't been updated and there was no notice posted about any extension of the trail system. I almost wonder whether that trail will be there the next time I visit.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

On the road

About twenty years ago or maybe a little more, my wife and I went to a small music club called the Towne Crier, which at that time was located in Pawling, New York, to hear a Scottish traditional music group called the Tannahill Weavers. According to a rumor I heard later, the Tannies had just come off a gig in a different venue at which some ignorant louts of the kind who think that anything connected with Scotland is fair game for mockery had made it an utterly miserable night for the group, so they may have come onstage with just a wee bit of trepidation. The Towne Crier, however, was a club for people who are knowledgeable about and serious about their music. As soon the Tannies finished the first song (or maybe set of tunes), the audience of some 150 or 200 people went absolutely wild in the best way, cheering and applauding and maybe even leaping to their feet, and I'll never forget the looks the band members exchanged in that moment, looks of mingled delight, relief, and stupefaction at their reception. Needless to say they were energized for the rest of the evening and put on a great show. As of 2022 they're still regular vistors to the Crier, which has since moved a bit west to Beacon.

The Tannahill lineup that night (it has changed often over the years) was presumably Roy Gullane on lead vocals and guitar, Phil Smillie on whistle, flute, and vocals, Leslie Wilson on guitar, bouzouki, and vocals, John Martin on fiddle and vocals, and I think Duncan Nicholson on bagpipes. The inclusion of the pipes was an innovation introduced by the group, and takes a bit of careful arranging, since bagpipes are just naturally louder than the stringed instruments and aren't traditionally played in a combo setting. (The Irish group Planxty, which had an approach somewhat akin to that of the Tannies, made similar creative use of Liam O'Flynn's uilleann pipes.)

The Tannies play a mixture of instrumentals, old ballads, and original songs, driven by Gullane's vocals and energetic rhythm guitar work, which really has to be seen live to be appreciated in full. Gullane has just put out a memoir entitled Goulash Soup and Chips, in which he tells stories from tours past, some painful (miserable road trips, gigs that weren't paid for, baggage handling disasters, etc.) and others absolutely hilarious. It's available from Amazon or at Tannahill Weavers gigs, and is essential for fans of the group and recommended for anyone interested in traditional music. Long may they wave.

Below is a clip of an expanded line-up of the Tannies performing "The Geese in the Bog" a few years back during a 40th-anniversary celebration.

Thursday, October 06, 2022


I enjoyed this seasonally appropriate 1960 Mexican film directed by Roberto Gavaldón, with cinematography by Gabriel Figueroa. Macario is based on a short story by B. Traven, which is in turn based on a folktale called (in one of its many versions) "Godfather Death." It tells of a poor woodcutter (Ignacio López Tarso) who can barely feed his family enough tortillas and beans to fill their stomachs. Since his one wish in life is to have an entire roast turkey for himself, his devoted wife (Pina Pellicer) finally steals one and cooks it for him. As he sits down to eat it he receives in succession three visitors, whom we realize are in turn the Devil, God (or Jesus), and Death. Each asks to share his meal, but on the basis of some quite logical reasoning he agrees to invite only the third, who, in return, gives Macario a magic liquid that will enable him to cure the dying. There is a catch, however; if Macario sees Death standing at the feet of the patient, he may perform his cure; if Death stands at the head of the bed, the patient is his and Macario must not intervene. Macario makes use of the potion and becomes, in time, a rich man, until the Inquisition gets wind of his activities.

One of the things I liked about the film is that it plays down the potentially garish visual aspect of the story. (That aspect is, in part, reserved for the opening credits, which feature a troupe of folkloric skeleton marionettes.) The Devil, for instance, is a bit of a snazzy dresser, but he doesn't have horns and a goatee, nor is Death a skeletal figure with a flail. Macario, in his unassuming way, recognizes them for who they are nevertheless, and he isn't excessively impressed with either, or with the Señor. López Tarso is particularly good at giving Death skeptical looks at the bedside of patients who are obvious goners but whom Death assures him can still be saved. Really, this one? (Shrug.)

Gavaldón made at least two other films based on Traven novels or stories, Rosa Blanca and Días de otoño. I haven't seen either one, although I've read the story the latter is based on and it could be interesting. Ignacio López Tarso, at this writing, is still alive at the age of 97, which suggests that he set aside a bit of that potion for himself. Sadly, Pina Pellicer, who starred in Días de otoño, died at age 30 of an overdose of sleeping pills.

I'm not sure about the current availability of Macario on DVD or from streaming services; I watched an older DVD release that has subtitle options in both English and Spanish. A version of the folktale can be found in the Lore Segal / Maurice Sendak edition of The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm, one of those perfect books that belong in every household.

Friday, September 30, 2022

In the clearing

The grass may not always be greener, but with mushrooms it seems to be a different story. It's been a dreadful year for fungi-spotting where I live (too dry), but whenever I go away they seem to be abundant everywhere else. These specimens, from a brief field trip to New Hampshire, were found in an area of scrubby woodland along a rarely-used trail.
Amanita is an interesting and often photogenic genus, with the classic "toadstool" appearance. Some species are regarded as choice edibles (by braver souls than I), others are deadly, and one, the "fly agaric," is a notorious hallucinogen with an alleged role in shamanism and religion. They can be hard to tell apart and I'm not quite sure which Amanita these are, but it was a pleasant surprise to come across them.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Stateless person

The narrator of this novel by the elusive writer who called himself B. Traven is one Gerard Gales, an American seaman who oversleeps while in port and loses his identification papers when his ship sails without him. Unable to prove his identity, his nationality, or even his legal existence, he is deported from one European country to another until he finds a freighter whose captain has reason not to be fussy about documents. As it turns out, the aptly-named Yorikke, on which Gales becomes a stoker's assistant, is a dilapidated ship of fools, doomed to be scuttled for its insurance payoff. If the first part of the book is bureaucratic satire, lighter but also sharper than Kafka's in The Trial, the rest is largely taken up with harrowing descriptions of the working conditions of those who tend the boilers. Unlike the Kafka of Amerika, who never crossed the Atlantic at all, Traven clearly knew from first-hand experience what a stoker's existence was really like. But even at its grimmest the book never loses its dark sense of humor. The Yorikke, Gales assures us, is actually thousands of years old. Its apparent timelessness gives the tale yet another dimension.

Who was B. Traven? He usually claimed that, like Gerard Gales, he was an American whose documents had gotten lost. Sometimes he blamed the destruction of his birth record on the fires caused by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. He may have even believed it, and it may even have been true, although few scholars now give the idea much credence. That he was the same person as one Ret Marut, a German actor and radical writer whose paper trail went cold in the 1920s, is no longer seriously questioned, but then who was Ret Marut? We may never know with absolute certainty.

The Death Ship was originally published in German as Das Totenschiff. The earliest English-language edition, issued in 1934 by Chatto & Windus, was translated by Eric Sutton. It was followed almost immediately by an American edition brought out by Alfred A. Knopf, of which my Collier Books edition above is a reprint. No translator is indicated inside the book. Traven, who reportedly didn't like the Sutton version, chose to translate the novel himself for Knopf, expanding it as he did so. His command of English was faulty, however. The German scholar Karl S. Guthke explains what happened:
The manuscript of The Death Ship that arrived in New York in 1933 was couched in an English that would have raised the eyebrows of most readers. As Knopf editor Bernard Smith reported, the text was so Germanic in vocabulary and syntax that it could never have made it in to print. And for good reason: Traven himself had translated the novel (as he was to translate the other novels Knopf would bring out), at the same time giving free rein to his lifelong passion for rewriting, cutting, and inserting new material. Knopf asked Traven to agree to a revision by Smith. Traven asked for sample pages and was favorably impressed. After instructing Knopf that only grammatical, syntactic, and orthographic changes were to be made, he authorized Smith to rework the entire manuscript. "This entailed treating about 25% of the text," Smith recalled. "In any given paragraph there was sure to be at least one impossibly Germanic sentence, and sometimes an entire paragraph had to be reconstructed." Smith stressed that his contribution in no way involved what could be considered literary or creative work on the three novels he revised. He had merely turned Traven's translations into acceptable English. It was clear to Smith from the beginning that English was not the translator's mother tongue; the syntactic thread was German, and even in Smith's reworked version the German original rears its head from time to time.

B. Traven: The Life Behind the Legends
The treatment of American place-names in the Traven-Smith version is a bit off. Referring to Wisconsin familiarly as "Sconsin" might just slip by unnoticed, but Chicago is casually referred to as "Chic," Cincinnati as "Cincin," and, least likely of all, Los Angeles as "Los." Other than that and a few eccentric colloquialisms the novel doesn't particularly "read like a translation" at all. Weirdly, it winds up being a work of American literature.

Traven, who would stubbornly maintain the fiction that his novels were originally written in English, allowed his German-language publisher, Büchergilde Gutenberg, to issue a new German "translation" in 1937 based on the Knopf version.