Sunday, November 30, 2014

Rue des Boutiques Obscures (Missing Person, 1978) by Patrick Modiano

The Nobel Committee in Sweden doesn't always get it right - and they have their own agenda which is narrower than the total range of literature - but their choices are usually well worth checking out. It were Nobel Prizes that initially attracted my attention to José Saramago and J. M. Coetzee, who are now among my favorite authors. And this year's choice, Patrick Modiano, is a highly interesting author as well. Here I discuss one of his best novels, Prix de Goncourt winner Rue des Boutiques Obscures from 1978.


[Via delle Botteghe Oscure (« Rue des Boutiques obscures »), Roma]


The novel tells the story of a man suffering from amnesia who searches for his identity, a tale of memory and repression. Guy Roland has lost his memory ten years ago; since then, he has worked in a detective agency. Now, in the mid-1960s, on the retirement of his boss and closure of the office, he finds the time has come to use his sleuthing technique to recover what he can of his tenuous past.

The pieces do not fit easily together. Guy Roland goes around talking to various persons, but is himself  a so-called "empty narrator," a first-person narrator devoid of self or identity, who only listens to others but never talks about himself. He tries to reconstruct his old self using unreliable, fragmentary evidence he receives from those he interrogates, such as old photographs, letters, a magazine, a book. These bring back flashes of memory, but it is not certain whether these recollections are authentic, or just dreams, the result of his imagination. Perhaps he is just creating his past with the memories and the past of others.

First Guy thinks he might have lived in a milieu of Russian émigrés; then he imagines he lived once in Hollywood, serving as the companion of the actor John Gilbert. Next it seems he worked as a diplomat for a Latin-American embassy under the assumed name Pedro McEvoy - a false identity to evade arrest - but in reality he may have been a Greek Jew, a broker who lived in Rome and Paris, called Jimmy Stern, who consorted with the idle rich, including exiled Russian aristocrats. Jimmy Stern was married to a French model called Denise, and was friends with Freddie Howard de Luz of Mauritius (a youth friend whom he met at an exclusive private school) and his wife Gay Orlov, an American dancer of Russian origin. To avoid the Nazi occupation (dangerous if Guy/Jimmy was indeed a Jew) the four friends, together with an English jockey, seem to have moved to the winter sports village of Megève in the French Alps. From there, Guy and Denise tried to flee to Switzerland but they were cheated by their guides and became separated. Guy was abandoned in the snow and Denise disappeared forever. This was in 1943.


[Following traces...]

Here the memories break off again, and it seemingly follows that Guy lost his memory in 1943. But elsewhere it is stated unambiguously that this happened in 1955 - so what has occurred in the twelve years between those dates? Was this twelve year gap a case of conscious forgetting, just like the French after the war tried to forget their history of cooperation with the Nazis and the Holocaust? This is one of the many questions that is never answered in the book.

The novel has a playful relation to the conventions of detective fiction, by raising the reader's expectations according to the rules of the genre, but always failing to fulfill them. Guy Roland's quest is a never-ending search for identity in a world where "the sand holds the traces of our footsteps but a few moments."

By the way, in English this book has been renamed "Missing Person," which is not only wrong (it is not what the book is about), but which also destroys the rich references of the original title "Street of Dark Shops." This is the name of an actual street in Rome (which also appears in Modiano's previous novel, Livret de famille), and it also points at small clothes shops owned by Jews and therefore hints at the (implied) Jewish identity of the protagonist, Guy Roland, while the "shops" suggest his "shopping around" for an identity, and that he never seems satisfied with what he finds. Guy Roland remains an empty self, trying to fill the void in him with various narratives. The title also embodies "obscurity," connected to the fact that Guy Roland never finds clear proof of his past self, which remains shrouded in darkness. And, finally, a reference to the actual street Rue des Boutiques Obscures in Rome stands at the end of the book suggesting "lack of closure" - the search for identity goes on and will never end. So you see how much is lost when a too commercially-minded publisher changes a title the author has given deep thought to, into a simplistic phrase suggesting a cheap genre novel!


[Patrick Modiano (2014)]


Patrick Modiano was born in Paris in 1945 as the son of an Italian Jewish father and a Belgian mother. His father hid his Jewish identity and evaded arrest, but spent the war doing questionable business on the black market. Modiano always had a difficult relation with his father, who was often absent. Instead, he was emotionally close to his brother Rudy, who died from an illness when only ten years old. After high school, Modiano did not continue to university, but started writing. The famous author Raymond Queneau, a friend of his mother, acted as his mentor and played a decisive role in Modiano's development. His first novel, La Place de l'étoile, was published in 1968 and attracted much attention.

Since then, Modiano has published a new novel every year or every other year. He has also written children's books and film scripts - the most important of these is Lacombe Lucien, a film set under the German occupation, filmed by Louis Malle in 1974. Modiano's books center on themes as memory, oblivion, identity and guilt - there is a decided similarity to the work of German author W.G. Sebald here. Paris also plays an important role in his work, it is evoked by using real addresses and Modiano follows the evolution of its streets. Modiano uses many autobiographical elements in his work. He is also obsessed with what happened during the Nazi occupation. Some of his novels have a documentary character, being built on newspaper articles. Modiano's many novels not only share the same topics, but also hang together because the same persons may return in different novels, and earlier, concise episodes may be extended in later books. Modiano writes in a bare and unemotional - indeed documentary - style.

Some important novels, also translated into English, are: Villa Triste (1975); Voyage des noces (1990, translated as Honeymoon) and especially Dora Bruder (1997, again a title severely mistranslated as "The Search Warrant"). This last novel documents the true history of a fifteen-year old girl (called Dora Bruder) in Paris who ran away from the convent that had sheltered her during the Nazi Occupation and who subsequently became victim of the Holocaust. It shows, again, how little remains of a human life.
Photos:
Via delle Botteghe Oscure:  Lalupa, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Traces in the snow: Richard Dorrell / Further up the track, via Wikimedia Commons (Share Alike 2.0 Generic license).
Modiano:  Frankie Fouganthin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Two Shishigatani Temples: Reikanji and Anrakuji

Shishigatani is the area between the small Shirakawa River and the thickly wooded slopes of Higashiyama, just south of Ginkakuji. For centuries this shallow valley was farmer's land, interrupted only occasionally by a small temple or a country villa. But then, after WWII, the city started expanding and a wave of stucco houses swept also over Shishigatani. But with the Philosopher's path and the little, almost hidden temples - and despite the unpleasant rise in numbers of tourists - Shishigatani is still one of my favorite Kyoto haunts.

[Reikanji temple halls on the hill slope]

Reikanji and Anrakuji both form part of this string of secluded, little temples that cling to the hillside where the slope of Higashiyama begins to get steep. They are usually closed and only open to visitors for a few weeks in spring and autumn.

***

Reikanji or "Sacred Mirror Temple" is a nunnery of the Rinzai school of Zen. It was established in 1654 for the 10th daughter of the retired Emperor Gomuzinoo, Johosshinin no Miya Socho. The new temple took over as main image the Nyoirin Kannon statue (as well as sacred mirror) of a temple in the area that had been closed.

Until the Meiji Restoration, Reikanji served as a monzeki monastery that always had an imperial princess for its abbess. The Shoin, the first building one passes, possesses screens by Kano Motonobu. Opposite is a small moss-covered rock garden with old stone lanterns and a pond which used to contain water, but now stands dry. On a somewhat higher level and connected via a corridor, stands the main hall housing the small Kannon statue.

[Maple leaves at Reikanji]

The garden spreads out over the hill and the one-way path leads first steeply up, and later again down, through flowering bushes and trees. The flowering trees in the northern part of the garden include red and white camellias, plums and cherries. It is a fine, though small, garden. One exits via a path that leads under the corridor between the two temple buildings and finally can enter the Shoin, where usually some treasures of the temple are exhibited. These include fine makie lacquer work, and infallibly one also finds some of the marvelous dolls the princesses owned (like the Imperial nuns of Hokyoji). The temple is only open to visitors for a few weeks in spring (early April), when the cherry trees are in full bloom, and autumn (late November) when the maple trees are on fire.

***

Anrakuji is a Jodo (Pure Land) temple that legend has firmly linked to Honen (1133-1212), the founder of that school, and two of his disciples, Anraku and Juren. It was probably founded around 1211-1212, to the memory of both these priests, although it was only named after one of them. It stands about one kilometer from the spot where Anraku and Juren had set up their cottage called "Shishigatani Soan." Both priests were experts in shomyo, Buddhist chanting, and their beautiful singsong had attracted many followers. Among them were also two court ladies of Emperor Gotoba, Matsumushi-hime (Pine Beetle) and Suzumushi-hime (Bell Cricket). They were so entranced by the teachings of the musical priests that they fled the palace and became nuns. Legend adds as spicy elements that the Emperor was especially fond of them and that the other palace ladies had become extremely jealous.

[Main Hall of Anrakuji]

So the rumor machine worked at full speed, suggesting that the intentions of Anraku and Juren were not honorable. The handsome priests were accused of having a love affair with the beautiful palace ladies. As a result, Emperor Gotoba - who had already for a long time been pronged by the traditional schools to put a stop to the teachings of Honen - became furious and exiled the aged Honen. Anraku and Juren were hit by a harder fate, for they were executed on the bank of the Kamo River on a charge of immorality. The grounds of Anrakuji contain the small graves of Anraku and Juren, and - chastely in a different spot - those of the palace ladies, who became nuns and died at a later time.

The grounds of Anrakuji are well-planted and have fine camellia trees. The graves are to the right (Anraku/Juren) and far right (at the back) of the entrance path; the path leading to the main hall, standing to the left, crosses this at a right angle. Both sets of graves are surrounded by low fences.

[Anrakuji - The graves of the two court ladies]

The present main hall dates from the late 16th century. The central trinity in this hall of Amida, Kannon and Seishi, has been ascribed to Eshin (942-1017). The altar also contains an ancient Jizo statue. To the left of the main altar stands a smaller altar with a statue of Honen and his most important follower, Shinran. Here one also finds a walking stick and hat said to have belonged to Shinran, but both look suspiciously newer. A right-hand altar contains the images of Anraku, Juren, Matsumushi-hime and Suzumushi-hime. The court ladies are depicted as nuns.

Connected to the main hall is a shoin type building, which has a nice garden with azalea bushes on its east side, against the green background of the Higashiyama hills. One can sit down here and relax. Anrakuji is filled with peace.

[Anrakuji - the Shoin garden with clipped azalea bushes]



Thursday, November 27, 2014

"The Emigrants" ("Die Ausgewanderten") by W.G. Sebald

The Emigrants, a work of fiction written in 1992 by W.G. Sebald, consists of four short biographical narratives. The original German title, Die Ausgewanderten, has a nuance that is impossible to convey in the same way in English: it means people who have already emigrated, and who are now living away from their original homeland, not "emigrants" still on the move, which would be "Auswanderer." "Displaced persons" or "exiles" would be a better description for the four persons described in these tales, as they have not only emigrated in a spacial sense, but also in a social and above all psychological sense. The Emigrants is the record of the narrator's research into the memories, traumas and feelings of foreignness of four such displaced persons, and it is at the same time a post-modern fictional investigation into the relationship between memory and history. Unavoidably, that history is the impact of WWII and the Holocaust on Germans, especially those of Jewish heritage. It is a sign of Sebalds' mastery that the word "Holocaust" is never mentioned in the book, but that we feel its ominous present on almost every page.

They four "displaced persons" are:
Dr. Henry Selwyn, the estranged and unworldly husband of the English landlady of the narrator. The narrator and his wife first meet him when they come to look at a house for rent in Norwich and in fact find him face down on the lawn, talking to the grass. When Dr. Selwyn was only seven, in 1899, his family emigrated from a village in Lithuania to England. It was their intention to go to New York, but the boat dumped all emigrants in London, where they unknowingly for a long time kept searching for the Statue of Liberty. In this way, the originally Jewish Dr Selwyn, who had a distinguished career as a medical doctor, could remain untouched by the horrors of Nazism. However, it is clear that psychologically he increasingly suffers under the shadow of the (never mentioned) Holocaust - that is the reason he gradually dissolves most relations with other humans and only feels close to plants and animals. At the same time, Dr Selwyn doesn't like to speak about the past and it is only via chance meetings that the narrator hears part of his life story. Dr Selwyn finally commits suicide by shooting himself.
Paul Bereyter, the primary school teacher of the narrator in a town called "S" in southern Germany. The story is triggered when the narrator reads a small notice of the death by suicide of his old teacher. Although partly Jewish, and therefore having trouble finding work in Germany in the 1930s, Paul Bereyter has served in the Wehrmacht because at that time he felt his identity was "German." After the war he leads a quiet life as an inspirational school teacher, who takes his pupils often out of the classroom. But after his pension he moves to France, not feeling at home in Germany anymore - as his grandfather was Jewish, he gradually realizes he belongs to the "exiles." He finally commits suicide by lying down on the railroad.
Ambros Adelwarth, a long-dead great uncle of the narrator. During a visit to relatives living in New Jersey, the narrator hears the story of this great uncle. In his youth, in the early 20th century, Uncle Adelwarth has emigrated from Germany to the U.S. where he became the traveling companion (both valet and lover) of a young man from a wealthy Jewish family who wandered around the world (the narrator paraphrases his diaries to tell about this period). They visit casinos and famous hotels were the pre-WWI jetset used to seek its enjoyment. When his companion has become mentally ill, Uncle Adelwarth continues serving the same family as a butler on their estate on Long Island. After his pension, he suffers from depression and undergoes an electroshock treatment whereby his memories seem to be dissolved. He finally dies in a mental institution.
Max Aurach (in the English version: Feber), an expatriate German-Jewish painter. He scratches his paintings as much as 40 times away, until they become veritable "images of the lost." The young narrator (who has come to the U.K. to study) meets him in the dilapidated city of Manchester. Years later, the painter gives the narrator the diary of his mother, which describes her idyllic life as a girl in a Bavarian village in the early 20th c. It was written as she and her husband awaited deportation to the Nazi death camps. In this way, the narrator gradually discovers the effects of the Holocaust on Aurach/Ferber and his family.

In the above, I have on purpose spoken about "the narrator" and not "Sebald." I wanted to make clear that we should distinguish between the two - although the narrator shares many autobiographical elements with Sebald, The Emigrants is a work of fiction. That same fictionality is true for the four narratives: these "biographies" ring very true, but we know that Sebald included fictional elements, making them rather "mock biographies." For example, the painter in the fourth story is a composite, fictional figure, partly based on the real Frank Auerbach, a German-born painter with a Jewish background working in London, who indeed paints in the style described by Sebald. But Sebald has said in an interview that he has never met Auerbach and in order to protect Auerbach's privacy, he changed the name of the painter in the English translation from "Aurach" into "Feber." This of course means that the diary of the mother of the painter is also fictional, or that Sebald used another diary here. And so there are more instances revealing the ultimate fictionality of the biographies - which does not alter the fact that the book as a whole points at a higher truth.

There is one more fictional element that all four stories have in common: In all of them suddenly a man (in the last story, a boy) with a net catching butterflies appears - this obviously is the famous author Vladimir Nabokov, who was a great butterfly fan and spent all his holidays hunting butterflies, either in the U.S. or Europe. The inclusion of Nabokov is more than just a post-modern joke - after all, also Nabokov was an "emigrant," exiled from Russia by the Revolution, and his autobiography is significantly called "Speak, Memory."

Sebald illustrates his mix of fact and fiction with small blurry black-and-white photographs which are another form of "memories," but here, too, we can never be sure we have to do with real documents - teasingly, they may, or may not, be photographs of the places and people in the narrative.

What Sebald shows in a masterly fashion is how our lives are constituted by chance, how they rather randomly consist of both realized and unrealized possibilities. On top of that, for Sebald the major elements of life are not the great themes of love, truth or friendship - but rather unremitting loneliness and permanent disquiet.

No life develops as originally scripted, "life stories" only exist in Hollywood films. In fact, life can be stranger than fiction, as in the story about Dr Selwyn, who tells the narrator about his friendship with a Swiss mountain guide - until that guide suddenly disappeared. Long after the death of Dr Selwyn, the narrator reads in a paper that the body of exactly this guide has been found in a retreating glacier, many decades after his death. "And so they are ever returning to us, the dead," he concludes.

A very profound work of fiction, that gains from repeated readings.

P.S. Sebald, who since 1970 lived permanently in England where he taught at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, was himself an emigrant as well.

English translation by Michael Hulse, published by New Directions.
See my review of The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald for more information about the author.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Autumn in Arashiyama (2): Okochi Sanso

Okichi Sanso is a mountain villa, laid out on the sides and top of a steep hill next to Kameyama Park in Arashiyama. It affords grand views over both the city of Kyoto (towards the Higashiyama range) and over the gorge of the Hozu River. There are evergreen pine trees, but also maple trees and cherry trees which dress the garden in the color of the season. There are also several buildings, such as a shrine, a tea house and a private residence in traditional style, but these are not open to the public.

[Okochi Sanso - the lawn in front of the main house with a gorgeous Ginkgo tree]

Okochi Sanso is named after the man who constructed house and garden: Okochi Denjiro (real name Obe Masuo; 1898-1962), one of Japan's most famous film actors. Okochi's career started in 1926 with silent films, and he mostly - though not exclusively - acted in period films (jidaigeki). He worked with directors as Kurosawa Akira, Ito Daisuke, Yamanaka Sadao, Kinugasa Teinosuke, Inagaki Hiroshi and Makino Masahiro, and played next to famous stars as Bando Tsumasaburo, Kataoka Chiezo, Shimura Takashi and Hara Setsuko.

[Okochi Sanso - the main house called Daijokaku]

Among Okochi's famous films are The Million Ryo Pot (Tange Sazen Yowa: Hyakuman Ryo no Tsubo), a jidaigeki comedy made in 1935 by Yamanaka Sadao; and Sugata Sanshiro (1943), The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail (Tora no O wo Fumu Otokotachi, 1945) and No Regrets for Our Youth (Waga seishun ni kuinashi, 1946), all by Kurosawa Akira. His most famous genre roles in period film were that of the wandering gambler Kunisada Chuji and the nihilistic ronin Tange Sazen, who has lost his right eye and right arm due to betrayal. In non-period films (made during the Occupation after WWII, when jidaigeki were forbidden), he usually depicts a traditional, overbearing father.

[Okochi Sanso - Mossy garden next to the Tekisuian tea house]

The 20 thousand square meter garden was constructed over a period of 30 years. The main structures, such as the Daijokaku main house and Tekisuian tea house were built in the 1930s and 1940s; only the Jibutsudo Buddhist shrine dates from the Meiji period and was brought here from elsewhere. This unique garden has only few flat spaces - the largest one is in front of the main house, where visitors can sit down on benches and enjoy the view over Kyoto. Another one is close to the entrance, where there is a restaurant serving the cup of green tea and a sweet included in the (somewhat higher than usual) entrance fee. There is also a mossy garden next to the exquisite Tekisuian tea house. But for the rest this garden consists of narrow paths running steeply up or down the hill, all with one-way traffic - to see the garden, one has to do quite a lot of climbing. At the top of the hill is a viewpoint affording a view of the Hozu River gorge and Daihikaku Temple on the opposite hillside - but the view over the same river gorge from nearby Kameyama Park is better, as that allows a broader and more open view of the valley.

[Okochi Sanso - the view towards Kyoto]

As a bonus there is a small outdoor museum with pictures of Okochi Denjiro in various film roles; but unfortunately for foreign visitors, no effort at translation has been made here. The garden is open around the year and although one has to do some effort to see it, the reward for that is a rich seasonal feeling.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Autumn in Arashiyama (1): Hogonin

A few weeks ago, when the leafs on the trees were just starting to show some color, I visited two beautiful gardens in Kyoto's Arashiyama: the garden of Hogonin temple and the garden of the Okochi Sanso (Mountain Villa). Here follows first Hogonin.

Hogonin is one of the subtemples of Tenryuji, the Rinzai Zen temple that sits in a central position in Arashiyama, Kyoto. Hogonin was originally founded in the 15th century in central Kyoto, suffered several times destruction, then was restored in the grounds of Kogenji, another subtemple of Tenryuji, before being set up in the present independent location - a spot where originally another subtemple of Tenryuji had stood which was closed down. After that, during a spat of fighting with rebellious Satsuma forces in 1877, Hogonin's buildings were again destroyed, together with those of Tenryuji. In other words, the present buildings of the temple were all reconstructed in the 20th century, and you come here not for the architecture, but for the garden.

[Hogonin garden with large rock shaped like a Shishi lion]

That garden, which predates Hogonin, is ascribed to a disciple of Muso Soseki, the famous priest credited with the creation of the great Tenryuji garden. But as far as I can see, there is no proof for that ascription. We only know for certain that the garden did exist in the Edo-period, as it is mentioned in travelogues of the 18th century (such as the Miyako Rinsen Meisho Zukan or Guidebook to the Gardens of Miyako dating from 1799). The name of the garden is "Shishiku," which means "Lion's Roar" - an image of the preaching of the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni (in modern Japanese it also means "making an impassioned speech").

The garden is usually described as a "shakkei kaiyushiki teien," a "circuit stroll garden (often centered on a pond, but not here) that incorporates the surrounding scenery into its design." This is also called "borrowed scenery" (shakkei), but gardens with borrowed scenery usually have a framing device through which the borrowed scenery is viewed - as Mt Hiei seen through a frame of strategically placed trees in the case of the Entsuji garden. That is not the case here and as the Arashiyama hill serves more as a diffuse background and continuation of the tall trees in the Hogonin garden itself, I doubt whether it formally could be called a "borrowed scenery garden."

[Arashiyama seen through the trees of Hogonin]

That does not make the garden less interesting, on the contrary: this is an enclosed "forest garden" (my term, not a traditional one!) with tall Japanese maple trees (iroha momiji), various varieties of moss, and several colossal rocks. In one place, a pine tree grows from a rock, having split the stone in two. The garden almost seems to be natural, but of course is carefully tended. The moss is so beautiful that Hogonin is a good alternative to the so-called Moss Garden Temple (Kokedera) elsewhere in Arashiyama, which restricts visitors by a super-high entrance fee and compulsory sutra copying. The rocks in Hogonin must have been eroded in the past by the nearby Oi River - thanks to the human "Rorschach fallacy," one of them looks indeed like the Shishi lion that gives the garden its name.

What makes this garden interesting is the natural atmosphere - the murmuring of a small stream that flows through it, the bird calls, the rustling of the leaves, these are all like "wordless preaching." There are some benches where visitors can sit down to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere. Adding to the rustic character are several interesting bamboo fences, one made with bamboo branches (not poles) packed tightly together (takeho-gaki); there is also an unusual hanging bamboo gate as used in tea ceremony gardens, made from strips of bamboo woven into a diamond pattern (shiorido). Although these elements are newly made by the gardeners, they wonderfully fit the garden. The only element that I could do without is the small "themed garden" that has been laid out near the entrance and that shows the Buddhist River Styx (made with large, round stones), with a boat-stone to pass to the "other side (higan) where three large upright stones symbolizing the Amida trinity wait - this is just too artificial.

[Maple leaf on the moss]

For an extra fee, one can have matcha in the tea house in the garden; and for another extra fee it is also possible to enter the main hall and see the screens by contemporary painter Tamura Noriko - but for me, the garden with its beginning autumn colors was more than sufficient. As an added bonus there is a cute set of arhats (rakan) called the "Arashiyama Rakan" sitting outside, opposite the gate of Hogonji. It is good this fine temple is nowadays open (something which only started recently), if only for a few weeks in spring and in autumn.



Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"The Following Story" by Cees Nooteboom (Best Novellas)

The novella The Following Story by the Dutch author Cees Nooteboom is - at less than 100 pages - a little gem. It is also a strange and uncanny story, although told with the necessary humor. A man who as usual went to bed in his apartment in Amsterdam, to his surprise wakes up in a hotel room in a different country. What has happened to him? What kind of metaphysical mystery has him in its grip? Is he still alive?

The man called Hermann Mussert (a surname with a notorious connotation as this is also the name of the leader of the National Socialist Movement in Holland before and during WWII, who was executed for high treason) is in his fifties; he used to be a teacher of Greek and Latin, until he lost his job, after which he became a writer of popular travel guides. He is not an attractive man - not for nothing was his nickname as a teacher "Socrates" (the Greek philosopher was reputedly one of the ugliest men in history) - and a typical intellectual who only lives for his books and study - of course he is unmarried and lives alone. He is obsessed by Greek and Roman literature, and especially by the mythology as described in the Metamorphoses of Ovid.

But twenty years ago he was harshly pulled into ordinary life (the life of other mortals) when a rather forceful and outspoken female colleague started an affair with him - to take revenge on her husband who was having his own affair with one of his pupils. The affair with the female colleague, a biology teacher called Maria Zeinstra, started in the same hotel room in Lisbon where he now finds himself, and the next day he spends his time walking through Lisbon, bringing back memories of his life and especially of what happened twenty years ago. The pangs and pleasures of memory bring him to the fundamental question of his identity, and what he has done with his life. They are also filled with an inexpressible melancholy.

And then, in the second half of the novella, the scene suddenly changes, as the man takes passage on a mysterious ship that sails west, and finally will reach South-America where it enters the mouth of the Amazon. There is only a handful of other passengers, who seem to be in the same circumstances, plus a woman, a sort of guide. They are from different walks of life and only thrown together by accident, as travelers usually are. Gradually we understand that they are all dead, shades as in classical mythology, on their way to Hades. When the ship enters the mouth of the Amazon, the passengers one by one are invited to tell their life story, after which they have to follow the guide and disappear. They all tell how they died. The teacher is the last one to tell his story and he starts with the words that he will tell "the following story" - at which point the novella ends, for this is the story we have just been reading.

As the author has indicated, the two parts of the story represent the first few moments during and after dying: at first, one sees the most important scenes of one's life flashing before one's eyes; next, one leaves the earth. Nooteboom is not religious in the traditional sense, so he doesn't conjure up a heaven or paradise - he uses images from classical Greek and Roman mythology, as that is the specialty of the teacher - and mixes these with the contemporary insight that death is the end: in life we are a collection of a particular set of atoms, after death these atoms will be scattered and their function will change so that even they will have no memory of the body they once formed.

The scenes that appear before his eyes the moment the teacher in the story dies, have been the crucial ones in his life, because this was a time that he was untrue to himself. This truth is buried deep in the story and never stated in so many words. For the relation with the biology teacher was not a tale of love: Maria was an overbearing, assertive and - as Dutch can be - aggressively outspoken person and just swept the shy classical language teacher, who had no experience in love or life, from his feet. She didn't love him, and the way she spoke to him shows that she in fact looked down on him. She only used him for taking revenge on her philandering husband. That husband is a teacher at the same school and has an affair with a beautiful pupil, Lisa d'India. She is the best pupil also in Latin and Greek, and much admired by our protagonist. He is even secretly in love with her, perhaps without being wholly aware of that.

As events develop, Lisa sends him a letter, and he receives it while the biology teacher is standing next to him. Maria Zeinstra demands that he throws the letter away, unseen, or else she will stop loving him. The meek classical teacher obeys, and so throws away his own chance of happiness - this was the crucial moment in which he failed Lisa d'India and himself, something which he only now realizes as it had been buried deeply in his consciousness. That same day, he gets involved in a fist fight with Maria's husband, after which both teachers are sacked; and Lisa d'India dies in a car accident.

Finally Hermann Mussert discovers who he is, and the answer is not a pleasant one.
First published in Dutch with the title Het volgende verhaal in 1991. The English translation was made by Ina Rilke and published in 1994. A Vintage paperback edition has followed in 2014 (with a foreword by David Mitchell). The German edition was translated by Helga van Beuningen and published by Suhrkamp in 1991; this led to a breakthrough for Nooteboom in Germany, where Die folgende Geschichte was not only highly praised by critics (as Marcel Reich-Ranicki of Das Literarische Quartett) but also led to highly successful sales (seven printings in only the first three months). 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Japanese Seasons: November

November is traditionally called Shimotsuki, or “Month of Frost.” It is the time that temperatures get lower and days shorter - one week into November the seasonal turning point of Ritto comes along and actual winter is deemed to start.

But November is in fact a most beautiful month as it is the time of momiji (maple leaves). Although less well-known outside Japan than cherry blossoms, in Japan the koyo or colored leaves of autumn are just as big an event. Like hanami or blossom viewing, momijigari ("hunting for colored maple leaves") draws huge crowds. Not only the famed "sakura zensen," but also the "koyo zensen" or "front map of autumn colors" is heavily reported, from TV to magazines and internet. Based on the information given by the media, people plan day trips or short holidays to enjoy the fall colors. In the past, the beauty of autumn leaves was eulogized in poems and paintings. In the Heian-period, aristocrats would enjoy lavish banquets under the autumn leaves, gathering the fallen leaves, and writing poetry.

[Koyo]

November is also characterized by several interesting public holidays and other events.

Culture Day (Bunka no Hi) on November 3 is originally the holiday dedicated to the Emperor Meiji, whose birthday according to the Lunar Calendar fell around this date. Before the war, people would gather at shrines throughout the country and bow in the direction of the Imperial Palace. Under the postwar constitution the day was rechristened as "Culture Day", as after all autumn is a time for cultural pursuits.

On November 3 the Emperor awards the Order of Culture to people of outstanding achievement in the fields of science, art or culture. The Emperor presents the awards (shaped as a mandarin orange blossom with purple cord; the mandarin orange was planted in the palace courtyard since Heian times and symbolizes eternity - in this way the timelessness of culture is expressed) during a ceremony held in the palace.

In Tokyo, visit the Meiji Shrine for the last day of the Shrine's Festival (held from Oct. 29 to Nov 3). Various activities are held, including yabusame (archery on horseback) and other demonstrations of martial arts.

Also on November 3, in Yumoto Hakone (Kanagawa) the Hakone Daimyo Gyoretsu is held, a parade of 150 people in full period-dress recreating a daimyo procession of the Edo-period (1603-1867).

There are also many art festivals (such as the Nitten Exhibition in Tokyo) and cultural activities nationwide, where lesser awards are given by all kinds of organizations.


Around this time, museums have special exhibitions, such as the annual Shosoin Exhibition of priceless treasures and household goods once belonging to the 8th century Emperor Shomu held at the Nara National Museum. These are 650 items, all personal belongings of Emperor Shomu, given to the Great Buddha of Todaiji by his widow, the Empress Komyo in the 8th century. Among the priceless treasures are many Persian and Chinese items that reached Japan via the Silk Road. Carefully kept under lock by Todaiji for many centuries, the Shosoin is now under the care of the Imperial Household Agency. The annual exhibition shows a limited number of items, usually for about 3 weeks from the last week of October.

There are also special temple openings in Kyoto, which are normally closed to the public, such as of subtemples of Daitokuji (these seasonal openings are nowadays held - depending on the temple - somewhere between late October and early December).

November 15 is a good day to visit a Shinto Shrine, as this is Shichi-Go-San (Children's Shrine Visiting Day), the "seven-five-three" festival when parents with boys of five, girls of seven and either boys and girls of three dress their children in gay clothes and take them to shrines where they pray for their children's future. These three numbers were chosen since odd numbers are considered lucky and also go back to old dress customs.

Tori-no-ichi or "Cock Market" is held in the Otori Shrine in the Taito Ward of Tokyo on the two or three days of the cock falling in November according to the old calendar. It is nowadays held for success in business and among the lucky items for sale are kumade or bamboo rakes, to rake in good fortune.

November 23 is Labor Thanksgiving Day, established after the war as a day to express gratitude for hard work done in the past year. Originally, Nov 23 was the day when since the Meiji-period the Niiname-sai, an ancient rice festival, was held. The Emperor would make an offering of the new harvest to the gods and himself taste the first rice of the year. The Niiname-sai is still held privately by the Imperial Family.

On November 22 and 23 at the Sukunahiko Shrine in Osaka the annual Shinnosai is held. This small shrine in the pharmaceutical district is dedicated to the Chinese and Japanese gods of Medicine and on the festival days it is customary to purchase a toy tiger (hariko) as a prayer for good health.

Although the weather in November is generally good, in early November (or sometimes already in late October) a cold wintry wind coming from the northwest called Kogarashi blows - “Kogarashi” is literally the wind that sears the leaves of the trees. The first such withering blast is called “Kogarashi Ichigo.” Early and mid-winter are also the season of Shigure, rain showers. These showers occur after the sky suddenly clouds over, but they pass quickly. Shimoyo is the name for nights when the stars are bright in the sky and there is a blanket of frost on the ground. November actually knows also many beautiful, clear days and these are known as Koharu(-bi), or “Little Spring” as the weather can be quite balmy.

As foods go, November is the season that kaki or oysters come to market, which are cultivated on a large scale, for example in Hiroshima. They are eaten raw, fried, cooked in hotpot or mixed through rice (kakimeshi). Another wintry seafood that starts being sold in November are large crabs from the coast of the Sea of Japan called zuwaigani. They are served in various forms, as sashimi and tempura, or just with some vinegar. It is also the season of ginnan or gingko nuts, from the prehistoric Gingko tree, which have a subtle taste and are eaten skewered, grilled or in chawan mushi.

[Kaki]

As fruit goes, in November the season of kaki or persimmons starts. This autumn fruit rich in Vitamin C is either eaten raw or dried (hoshigaki); persimmons in Japan are usually sweet but there are also astringent varieties. Dried persimmons also form part of the New Year decoration. The orange kaki fruits hanging on the trees or after plucking strung under the eaves of farm houses are a beautiful sight in the Japanese countryside.

In the tea ceremony, finally, from November starts the use of the sunken hearth (ro), instead of the portable stove which is used in summer.