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YASUSHI INOUE (1907–1991) was born on Hokkaidō, Japan’s northernmost island, the eldest child of an army medical officer. After a youth devoted to poetry and judo, Inoue sat, unsuccessfully, for the entrance exam to the Kyushu Imperial University Medical School. He would go on to study philosophy and literature at Kyoto Imperial University, writing his thesis on Paul Valéry. In 1935, newly married and with an infant daughter, Inoue became an arts reporter for the Osaka edition of the Mainichi News. Following the Second World War, during which he briefly served in north China, he published two short novels,
The Hunting Gun
The Bullfight
(winner of the Akutagawa Prize for literature). In 1951 Inoue resigned from the newspaper and devoted himself to literature, becoming a best-selling and tremendously prolific author in multiple genres. Among his books translated into English are
The Hunting Gun, The Roof Tile of Tempyō
, and
The Blue Wolf: A Novel of the Life of Chinggis Khan
. In 1976 the emperor of Japan presented Inoue with the Order of Culture, the highest honor granted for artistic merit in Japan.

JEAN ODA MOY was born in Washington State and spent her early years in Seattle, moving to Japan shortly before the outbreak of World War II. She is also the translator of Yasushi Inoue’s
Chronicle of My Mother
Shirobamba: A Childhood In Old Japan

DAMION SEARLS is the author of
What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going
and an award-winning translator, most recently of Rainer Maria Rilke’s
The Inner Sky: Poems, Notes, Dreams
, Jon Fosse’s
Aliss at the Fire
, and Hans Keilson’s
Comedy in a Minor Key
. NYRB Classics has published his abridged edition of Henry David Thoreau’s
and will publish his translations of the Dutch writer Nescio’s short stories and André Gide’s



Translated from the Japanese by


Preface by



New York



Author Notes

Title Page

















Copyright and More Information


Yasushi Inoue was one of the most popular and critically acclaimed Japanese writers of the twentieth century—winner of every major Japanese prize, a perennial Nobel candidate, his books made into movies for more than half a century and widely translated. Certainly no Japanese writer between Natsume Soseki and Haruki Murakami, in my view, including Japan’s two excellent Nobel Prize winners, gives such intense and consistent literary pleasure. In English, though, he has never even attained the status of being “rediscovered” every decade or two. A university press published a retranslation of
The Blue Wolf
, Inoue’s novel about Genghis Khan that was the basis for the recent blockbuster movie
, in 2007, and before that was
The Samurai Banner of Furin Kazan
(basis for a 1969 movie starring Toshiro Mifune) in an almost unreadable translation in 2005—that’s been pretty much it in recent years.

His Internet presence in English is minimal too, though it does reveal how much more of his work has been translated into other European languages. One happily hunts through what there is and pieces together what one can. The English translation of Inoue’s autobiographical novel
is only the first half of the original, but the second half exists in French, as
; the novella that launched his career,
The Bullfight
, is untranslated in English but available in French and German. One translator’s introduction says that Inoue went to the United States in 1964 to research “what he personally believes will be his magnum opus, a multi-volume treatment of first, second, and third generation Japanese abroad, particularly in the United States,” then a preface mentions traveling to San Francisco in 1964 to do research for a novel called
The Ocean (Wadatsumi)
; a 1975 introduction says that Inoue “is currently working on
, a historical novel of epic proportions”; and the note in a 1985 anthology at last mentions “
(God of the Sea, 1977), a detailed study of Japanese emigration to the United States”—so he finished it, and there the trail grows cold, for now.

I mention this amateur’s—lover’s—treasure hunt because its delights are Inoue-ish delights, present in the books themselves. The main character of
A Voice in the Night
is an amateur expert on the poems from the eighth-century anthology
; in “Death, Love, and the Waves,” the main character brings the thirteenth-century
Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World
, in the English translation from 1900, to finish reading before the suicide he has planned.
The Roof Tile of Tempyō
, like
though set a few centuries earlier, has beautiful descriptions of monks who copy out Buddhist scriptures. In
Black Tide
, a retired schoolteacher has spent his life writing a cultural history of color in Japan, rediscovering and re-creating the old materials and methods so as to bring to life the colors of the past as they really looked:

To understand the ancient Japanese people’s spiritual and psychological relationship to color—in the broadest sense, to understand the inner lives of the men and women of the past and the social mentality of the time— it was absolutely essential to have a concrete sense of the ancient colors, and there was obviously only one way to do it: manufacture once again the hues of the old colors using the dyeing techniques of the past.

After some forty years of work, the schoolteacher has finished his studies and dyed enough silk to tip swatches of all the colors—including the legendary, forbidden Hajizome, “like the rays of the sun as it crosses the meridian”—into five hundred copies of his three-volume work, if he can get it printed in the tight postwar years.
Inoue himself as a historical novelist is well-known for his thorough research—he is said to have climbed Mount Hodaka four times to gather material for his novel about mountain climbing,
The Ice Wall
. In the author’s preface below, he describes his five years of researching
as “a very satisfying time.”

Yasushi Inoue, the oldest son of an army medical officer, was born in 1907 in northern Japan but grew up on the Izu Peninsula on the southern coast, the bucolic setting of many of his stories. He was raised by his “grandmother” Kano, in a separate house from his parents—in fact, Kano was his mother’s grandfather’s mistress, and the old man had arranged for Kano to adopt his oldest granddaughter, Inoue’s mother, so that Inoue’s mother would have to look after the former mistress in her old age. It was a formidable tangle of resentments and split allegiances that Inoue grew up in, living with a proud but affectionate old woman a few blocks away from the house where his blood relatives lived: mother and father, when his father was not posted elsewhere; “real” maternal grandparents, who despised the interloper from the pleasure quarters; and aunts and uncles, Inoue’s mother’s much younger siblings, including some as young as Inoue himself. Whether because his parents traveled, because Kano needed him for her own power struggle, or because Inoue’s mother couldn’t raise two young children without help after the birth of Inoue’s sister, he was “temporarily” sent to live with Kano, who was nevertheless his main emotional support, much more than the parents who resented her and had seemingly abandoned him. His feelings of longing and rejection, ability to understand mixed emotional motives, and tendency to turn to nature for solace all date from those years and are grippingly dramatized in
and his other stories of childhood. In one story, “Reeds,” Inoue relates a memory of himself at age five or six, with Kano at a fishing village on the Izu Peninsula. They are sitting on a beach and looking at a festive boat while waiting for someone to appear. Inoue doesn’t remember why Kano has brought him here, or who it is they are waiting for, but there they are: “If I have not forgotten the scene to this day, it must be because this image, in which I myself play a part, has something luminous and peaceful about it, but also something strangely empty.”

Inoue excelled at judo and wrote poetry, graduated from Kyoto University in 1936 with a degree in aesthetics and a thesis on Valéry, and except for a stint in the army for a few months in 1937–38, “most of it marching with pack horses about the plains of north China,”
he worked as a reporter for the
Mainichi Shimbun
newspaper in Osaka until 1951. His career as a fiction writer began late and meteorically, in his early forties, when
The Bullfight
won Japan’s most prestigious writing award, the Akutagawa Prize, in 1949, and his masterpiece
The Hunting Gun
was published almost simultaneously. He retired from the newspaper to pursue writing full-time, and by his death in 1991 he had published some fifty novels and novellas and close to two hundred stories.

Although he is often described as a historical novelist, his work falls into three or four main categories. The historical fiction translated into English includes
Tun-huang; The Roof Tile of Tempyō; The Blue Wolf; Wind and Waves
, a novel about Kublai Khan’s invasion of Korea;
Confucius; Flood
; and
, a book of short stories. His second type of fiction is contemporary love stories, preeminently
The Hunting Gun
, an exquisite book showcasing one of Inoue’s great strengths—his remarkably sympathetic, complex, and true female characters.
The Hunting Gun
is everything the ultimately disappointing Akutagawa story “In a Grove” (the basis of
) is supposed to be: a love story with multiple narrators where each narrative dramatically reshapes our understanding of the rest. Inoue’s third type of story addresses the social and political aspects of postwar Japanese society, often with reporter protagonists much like Inoue himself before his retirement: these books—
Black Tide, The Bullfight, The Ice Wall
, and later reflections on postwar social changes,
A Voice in the Night
Mister Ushioda’s Sundays
—have tended not to be translated into English. Lastly, there are Inoue’s personal writings: a novel of childhood,
); a book of childhood stories,
Nuages garance
(The Clouds Dyed Red); and a moving nonfictional account of his mother’s descent into old age and dementia,
Chronicle of My Mother
. There are crossovers between these categories—
The Ice Wall
, for instance, is based on a real-life mountaineering accident and the resulting scandal involving an important company’s controversial new product, nylon rope, but it is also an intense double love triangle—and they have certainly been modified in my own mind with each new book I come across.
A Voice in the Night
rails against modern life, which gives Inoue’s historical writing a more escapist tinge; the third and weakest story in
The Counterfeiter and Other Stories
, about contemporary Japanese businessmen, reveals its place in his oeuvre only after
Black Tide
The Ice Wall
; if I ever get to read
The Ocean
God of the Sea
, I am sure my sense of his work will be reshaped again.

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