Shadows: Yasushi Inoue’s “Der Tod des Teemeisters” and “Das Jagdgewehr”

Inoue, Yasushi (2008), Der Tod des Teemeisters, Suhrkamp
ISBN 978-3-518-46025-2
[honkaku bō ibun, translated by Ursula Gräfe, not yet translated into English]

Inoue, Yasushi (2006), Das Jagdgewehr, Suhrkamp
ISBN 978-3-518-45845-0
[ryōjū, translated by Oskar Benl, translated into English as The Hunting Rifle]

Tanizaki, Jun’ichiro (1977), In Praise of Shadows, Leete’s Island Books
ISBN 978-0-918172-02-0
[Translated by T.J. Harper and E.G. Seidensticker]

These are two novellas by one of the most highly regarded Japanese prose writers in the second half of the 20th century. I am completely unread as far as critical writings on Japanese prose are concerned, which is not an understatement, so excuse all and any foolish comments that may be obvious and/or superfluous. The Hunting Rifle is Inoue’s first publication, published in 1949, the Death of a Tea Master’s one of his last publications, published in 1981.

Reading the first one puzzled me inordinately. The Hunting Rifle is a strangely seductive work of art. It is reduced to a few significant pieces of dialogue, a few episodes. I started to read it as a love story, but my expectations, schooled by reading countless works of genre literature, were soon disappointed by the way it was executed: it is not an actual love story, it’s a retelling of a love story at a distance, or rather: it is a story about love, if that makes any sense. The story which forms the framework is about a writer who turns an observation about a middle-aged man with a hunting rifle into a poem, published into a hunter’s magazine; the poem, which is extraordinarily beautiful, closes by saying that the rifle presses all its weight into the back and soul of the lonely man wearing it, and that it’s radiating a blood-specked beauty that never appears when the rifle’s targeting something living. Clearly, the poem is critical of hunting, and consequently the poet is astonished that a hunter’s magazine would print it. Shortly afterwards, a man writes him, sure of being the middle-aged man described in the poem, and sends him three letters, asking the narrator to read and then burn them.

The three letters, which the narrator then ‘presents’ to the reader, tell of a forbidden affair between Saiko and her cousin Joskuke, both of whom are married, an affair, which, as we learn soon, ends with Saiko’s suicide 13 years later. The letters are from Saiko’s daughter, who was handed a journal by her mother just before the mother kills herself, and writes a long letter to “Uncle Josuke”, which becomes more and more condemning. She condemns the affair as amoral and thus demonstrates the constraints of the society which led to the affair being covert and doomed; additionally, her righteous – and partly justified- indignation creates an atmosphere that helps the reader to better place the events which are more fully related by the two other letters. The second letter is from Josuke’s wife, Midori, who tells him, among other things, that she has long known about the affair and asks for a divorce. The third and final letter is written by Saiko, who thanks him for having loved her so much for 13 years, and expresses, at the same time, a deep and devastating loneliness; it is a passionate letter yet very composed and cold.

Between these three letters we find events described that have led to four people being lonely, cold, even when passionately in love. There is a deep yearning for love, for company, in each of these letters, although Saiko’s daughter’s in a different way. They are hunting, for love, for composure, for dignity. In an episode related in Midori’s letter, Josuke aims at her back while both sit on a porch. She says she noticed even though Josuke put the gun away quickly. The chaos and violence of life does not reach these characters, the things they do follow careful, pre-established lines. And Saiko’s suicide is an old, known way to end such an affair before it is troubled by violence; and yes, suicide is not violence, as in The Death of a Tea Master, suicide is shown to be an adult, well-considered decision to endow one’s life with a shape even to the end of it; or rather: especially at the end of it. That illicit affair brought disorder into their lives, even if it was just a little, and Saiko’s final action is shown as an attempt to-re-order it. Inoue finds beauty in the spare and in the darkness in people’s minds.

I was reminded of Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s short but breathtakingly beautiful essay “In Praise of Shadows”, which praises traditional Japanese architecture, where simplicity rules. As he makes abundantly clear early on, this simplicity is a superficial one, it may and often does hide complexities, but the surface, inside and outside the houses, is clean and spare. It is not the cleanliness of modern glass-and-steel architecture, it’s an aesthetic that involves changing surfaces like wood, which glitter with age the older a house is. The shadows, which are praised, are those left in a room by the angle of the light falling in. Shadow and darkness are not the absence of light for Tanizaki, they are the most important element. It is in shadows that we can contemplate ourselves best, it is light that disturbs our inner order. Thinking and aesthetic meditation are described as almost incompatible with modern fixtures. This passage may illustrate what I mean:

On the far side of the screen, at the edge of the little circle of light, the darkness seemed to fall from the ceiling, lofty, intense, monolithic, the fragile light of the candle unable to pierce its thickness, turned back as from a black wall. I wonder if my readers know the color of that “darkness seen by candlelight.” It was different in quality from darkness on the road at night. It was a repletion, a pregnancy of tiny particles like fine ashes, each particle luminous as a rainbow. I blinked in spite of myself, as though to keep it out of my eyes.

Tanizaki mourns a style long gone, a style that cannot compete with the comfort central heating, electric lights and enamel toilets can provide. He feels an alienation of sorts towards that new world, he considers it a part of Western culture. If we Japanese, he says at one point, had invented these things, they would not be as corrosive to our culture as these Western objects are.

Maybe having read both of these books prepared me well for my second Inoue novella, “Death of a Tea Master”, maybe that’s why it did not irritate nor puzzle me at all. It is a beguiling, melancholy historical story retracing the mystery behind the self-inflicted death of a famous tea master, Sen no Rikyū, which soon turns out to be a meditation on the tea ceremony and those who take part in it. Maybe, however, it was different in the latter novella, since it wears its aesthetic heart on its sleeve, by following up both on the story as well as on the aesthetic background. When I closed its covers I found myself moved, entranced, and saddened. I felt the impulse to prepare a careful cup of tea, which is the strangest effect a book has ever had on me.

The Tea Master is a book that extends over a period of 32 years, from 1590 to 1622. It is a period of turmoil that sees the death of a generation of tea masters who appear to be the guardians of a certain culture, and their passing clearly signifies a change within that culture. The span of time encompasses the last throes of the Sengoku period, a time of upheavals and violent conflicts, which was ended by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a powerful daimyo, as regional warlords were then called. Hideyoshi unified Japan by subjugating the other major clans or by entering into alliances with them. It was Hideyoshi who asked for Rikyū’s suicide by seppuku, the ritual suicide mostly undertaken by the retainers of defeated warlords, either voluntarily or not. This novel, which is supposed to be a modern edition of old, unedited journals of a 17th century monk by the name of Honkakubo, charts this monk’s attempts to find out why Rikyū killed himself. And surprisingly, ‘because Hideyoshi told him to’ is not the answer.

As the Hunting Rifle seemed to be a love story, the Death of the Tea Master appears to be a mystery yet applying our genre expectation to this novel would make for as disappointing a reading experience as did reading the Hunting Rifle as a love story for me. As the plot, which covers 32 years, extends over as little as 167 pages in my edition, there are huge gaps and jumps. Honkakubo does not search for the answer to the mystery, at least not in the world around him. His search does not necessarily involve an interrogation of people and evidence, what McHale, if I remember correctly, refers to as the epistemological quest, which distinguishes the modern from the postmodern. Honkakubo makes use of information if and when it comes and the use he makes of it is singular: as he is handed a document that belonged to the late tea master, asked for his expertise, he finds that the document contains thoughts on the tea ceremony and spends weeks, carefully copying it down, meditating. During the 32 years he is invited by a few other monks and tea masters because he used to be a student of the late Rikyū, and has a few elliptical talks with them about Rikyū and the tea ceremony in general. They are elliptical because Honkakubo is reticent, quiet, polite. Even when among people who may cast light upon the mystery, he does not pursue a line of questioning that may enlight him. These people he meets are far more inquisitive yet they must consider him a dissatisfying conversationalist, because he is reluctant to share his interpretations of events during the last years and months of Rikyū’s life.

Even as more and more facets of the great tea master’s life enter the picture, his death remains a mystery, because outside events cannot shed light on it. Only as Honkakubo immerses himself in meditation, praying at Rikyū’s shrine and contemplating the tea ceremony, he gains an idea of what happened. Generally, asking for someone’s suicide meant killing them as surely as would thrusting the tanto into their bowls with their own bare hands. There is, however, a major difference. It is, after all, a self-inflicted death; in this case, Honkakubo and others are additionally wondering why Rikyū did nothing to alter Hideyoshi’s opinion. As our rulers today, the daimyos of Rikyū’s time were prone to bouts of anger now and then. Asking for a retainer’s suicide apparently was often a rash act, and the retainer was expected to ask for forgiveness and mercy afterwards. Rikyū would, it transpires, almost certainly have been granted mercy. Instead, he went to his death without complaint.

The tea ceremony is offered as a possibility for understanding the reasons for this. Rikyū was one of the first important tea masters to practice the art of wabi-sabi, a philosophy of simplicity, intimacy and modesty. I briefly discussed Tanizaki’s essay on architectural aesthetics earlier and the culture the loss of which he laments, is basically one dominated by wabi-sabi. In one of the most intense scenes in the novella, the tea ceremony is described as an encounter with death, with the tea drinker submitting to the tea master’s power. Although the tea master, who grinds the tea leaves, boils the water, cooks and serves the tea, may seem like a servant, he is actually the one person who is in charge of a ceremony which is apparently of high spiritual importance, because drinking the tea is not important; one has to drink it in the right way. People bow their heads under the yoke of ceremony, of convention and their tea master’s actions. Seppuku, the ritual suicide, is, in a way, quite a similar procedure, only here the warlord or emperor calls the shots. It may be that by refusing to ask for mercy, Rykiyu is refusing his lord the power which seppuku usually grants him.

This, however is but a personal interpretation. The novella itself does not decide upon any single reading. Instead it tries to make the cultural and personal context, in which the novella’s characters move, as clear as possible. It is not asking the reader to follow up on its clues to find out who did it; on the contrary, it invites the reader to meditate upon death and power and may, in some perceptive readers, awake a sense of self which we may be alienated from by modern times. This corresponds to the Hunting Rifle in a curious way. Behind the sad and cold story that is offered to us, love, not necessarily reciprocal love, is presented as a way to awaken your self as well. The Death and the Tea Master never allows for us to construct dichotomies, oppositions, it asks for our thoughts on death and autonomy; similarly, The Hunting Rifle asks us to consider our attitude towards love. Saiko relates an episode from school, where girls in class distribute a sheet of paper with two questions on it: “do you want to be loved” and “do you want to love”. In a way, the book is about the characters’ own hypothetical answers to this question and about the effect this has on their lives. Both of the novellas seem very distant from us, culturally, yet that distance beckons us to step closer. Tanizaki writes, near the end of the essay, and he could well have been describing Inoue’s method:

I would call back at least for literature this world of shadows we are losing. In the mansion called literature I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration.

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3 thoughts on “Shadows: Yasushi Inoue’s “Der Tod des Teemeisters” and “Das Jagdgewehr”

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