Friday, August 29, 2008

Koda Rohan - ghosts and samurai

I found Koda Rohan's short novel The Five-Storied Pagoda accessible* because I was able to slide it into a genre, stories-about-artists, that I understood. The Pagoda, Skull & Samurai collection includes two other stories where my luck was not so good. They are even easier to fit into genres, but ones about which I know nothing.

Encounter with a Skull (1890) is a Japanese ghost story, with a strong religious theme. The renunciation of the flesh literalized, maybe. There also seems to be some relation to idealized travel narratives like Basho's Narrow Road to the Interior. Parody? Homage? No relation at all?

The Bearded Samurai (1896, I think) is even trickier. The novella covers events before and after the 16th century battle of Nagashino, an important episode in the establishment of the shogunate. Fictional and historic characters are mixed together. Long scenes involve characters debating the value of life, or the importance of duty. It's sometimes a bit like the Bhagavad-Gita, actually, and also has some resemblance to Icelandic sagas, and to European medieval chronicles, like Froissart. It's true sources, the Japanese chronicles, the Tales of Heike, and 17th century stories of Ihara Saikaku, are completely unfamiliar to me.

In other words, I'm flailing. The Five-Storied Pagoda had something of the taste of a new discovery. The Bearded Samurai, on the other hand, is a Project for Future Research. Read one book, read another, read another. At some point, some light begins to shine through. There are no secret ways to learn new things - just try and try again. I'm ignorant, but curious.

* Also, pretty great.

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