The Samurai by Shūsaku Endō, translated from the Japanese by Van C. Gessel, new edition by New Directions, August 2018
The Samurai is Shūsaku Endō’s 1980 historical fiction that won him the prestigious Noma Literary Prize in Japan in the same year. As stated by Endō himself, this novel’s purpose was not meant merely as historical illustration—it is the story of a spiritual journey through suffering and, in some ways, a story of Endō himself. The Samurai has been published in a fresh edition by New Directions, featuring Van C. Gessel’s original English translation.
The Samurai begins in a poor village in the marshlands of northeast Japan at the very beginning of the seventeenth century. Peasants slave in the fields to pay rice taxes to their feudal lords, often unable to keep any to feed themselves. The samurai, Hasekura Rokuemon, looks after the village dutifully and works alongside the peasants in the fields. Based on real historical events, the samurai is commanded by his feudal lord to leave behind his village and set sail to New Spain (now Mexico) as an emissary to establish trade relations. Along with three fellow Japanese envoys, an ambitious, Jesuit-hating, Franciscan missionary named Velasco, and a horde of Japanese merchants looking for profits, the samurai’s voyage takes him across the deserts of New Spain, Madrid, and finally to Rome, at the foot of the Pope. This voyage is modeled after the real historical journey known as the Keichō Embassy (1613-1620). This historic embassy was one of Japan’s last diplomatic outreaches before the Tokugawa shogunate enacted a strict isolation policy known as the Sakoku, which lasted for the next two hundred and twenty years.
Today we bring you three enigmatic pieces by “the father of the Japanese short story.” You probably know Ryūnosuke Akutagawa without realizing it—one of his short stories served as the basis for Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Rashōmon. Each of these tales brings a quick punch of emotion, leaving an impression on the reader not unlike that of microfiction.
There was once a sennin who worked as a jurist in O Town near Lake Biwa. His favorite pastime, more than anything else, was collecting gourds. Stored inside a giant closet on the upper floor of his rented home was his vast collection hanging from nails hammered into the posts and lintels.
Three years had gone by, when, one day, the sennin received a notice of transfer from the government. He was to relocate forthwith to his new post in H City. He made arrangements for all of his furniture and belongings except for his gourds, of which he had amassed over two hundred. He had no idea how to go about moving them, and he refused to part with a single one.
Today, Assistant Managing Editor Rachael Pennington, who joined us in October this year, tells us about her year of reading Japanese literature—and how it gave her a heightened appreciation for the smaller details of life.
When asked to review my year in reading, my initial reaction was to think back to my most significant moments—travelling to Japan, getting a new job, seeing my best friend getting married—and to recount what I was reading at the time. But on second thought, remembering Ishiguro’s Nobel lecture, which celebrated “the small and private”, I decided to look past 2017’s more momentous occasions in search of the quiet moments of revelation. Asking myself, when nothing seemingly important was happening around me, what books was I reading in what Ishiguro described as “quiet—or not so quiet—rooms”? In the times I was caught up in the monotony of everyday life and lost to my daily routine, which books had tided me over and heightened my appreciation for the minutiae of life?
I read Nastume Sōseki’s The Gate (translated by William F. Sibley) on several Sunday mornings throughout September. Here, cradling a hot cup of coffee and basking in the first rays of the day peeking through the window of my downtown Barcelona flat, I came to understand why Sōseki declared it his favorite amongst his works. The novel captures the intimacy of life through a minimal plot, tracing the magnificently undramatic existence of a middle-aged couple, old before their time. With this relationship as the anchor, people come and go, seasons flourish and wither, yet the patience with which Sōsuke trims his toenails and the grace with which Oyone carries the loss of their children never once falter.
With Asymptote you can be sure to have the latest reading recommendations. True to form, we bring you a selection of the exciting new books this month. Which one is going to claim a place in your bookshelf?
Kholin 66: Diaries and Poems by Igor Kholin, translated from the Russian by Ainsley Morse and Bela Shayevich, Ugly Duckling Presse.
Reviewed by Paul Worley, Editor-at-Large, Mexico
English language readers already enamored of poets such as the Roman Catullus or the more recent Charles Bukowski will find a similarly humorous, difficult, and enthralling companion in the pages of Russian Igor Kholin’s (1920-1999) recently translated Kholin 66: Diaries and Poems from Ugly Duckling Presse. An autodidact whose experiences in the military included a near-death experience in World War II, Kholin in many ways perhaps serves as a vital counterpoint to the American Bukowski insofar as both writers, despite the fact that they are writing throughout the Cold War between their respective countries, cast an unrelentingly critical gaze on the societies they inhabit, bearing witness to abuse, the dirty, and the neglected, and rendering these as poetry. The translators note that although Kholin’s “occasionally unrestrained misogyny” may rankle the sensibilities of many readers, they nonetheless felt compelled to leave his attitude in their translation as “it seems to constitute part and parcel of his self-positioning and character” (9). Along those lines and, in tandem with Bukowski, one also wonders about the extent to which the writer’s misogyny is not a gendered version of a broader misanthropy from which the poet does not even exclude himself. After all, the poetic Kholin muses on the possibility that thinking he is “a creep…It’s not such a leap” (80), as well as understanding he is one for whom wine is “made” and shit is “laid” (85). As he criticizes his social circle for their faults and flaws in his diary, a passage written in a friend’s handwriting takes on the subject of Kholin himself, claiming the poet is “intellectually limited” (46) and that his “advice on writing is naive” (48). Perhaps unsurprisingly, marginal notes in the poet’s own hand describe these as “the best thing Yodkovsky [the friend] has ever written” (49).
Today, we continue our spotlight on the winners of Asymptote’s annual Close Approximations translation contest, now into its 3rd edition. (Find the official results and citations by judges David Bellos and Sawako Nakayasu here.) From 215 fiction and 128 poetry submissions, these six best emerging translators were awarded 3,000USD in prize money, in addition to publication in our Summer 2017 edition. After our podcast interview with Suchitra Ramachandran, we are thrilled to bring you fiction runner-up Brian Bergstrom in conversation with Asymptote Assistant Interviews Editor, Claire Jacobson.
Brian Bergstrom is a lecturer in the East Asian Studies Department at McGill University in Montréal. His articles and translations have appeared in publications including Granta, Aperture, Mechademia, positions: asia critique, and Japan Forum. He is the editor and principal translator of We, the Children of Cats by Tomoyuki Hoshino (PM Press), which was longlisted for the 2013 Best Translated Book Award.
His translation of “See” by Erika Kobayashi from the Japanese was a runner-up in Asymptote’s Close Approximations contest. This is what fiction judge David Bellos had to say about it: “Erika Kobayashi’s ‘See’ earns its place as a runner up by imagining a world just like ours save for a craze for a pill called ‘See’ that induces temporary blindness. People take it so as to go out on blind dates and drives to the sea. Read on! The English of the translation by Brian Bergstrom seems to me flawless.”
Best known for The Woman in The Dunes, Abe Kōbō is widely recognized as one of the most important Japanese writers of the 20th century. Today, we’re thrilled to partner with Columbia University Press to present an extract from a new and forthcoming Abe novel in English translation. Beasts Head for Home takes place shortly after World War II, when Japan was forced to give up its extensive colonial holdings throughout Asia, and Japanese civilians residing overseas began to return en masse to Japan. In the following excerpt, Kuki Kyūzō, a Japanese youth abandoned in what was previously the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo (in Northeast China) stows away in a train in order to return to a homeland he has never seen.
As the wind died, the fog began to rise. On the railroad tracks, the blurred shadows of the patrolling soldiers turned back in the opposite direction. As soon as they disappeared, Kyūzō crawled out from the hollow space of the warehouse, cut across the tracks, and slid down the far side of the embankment. Here there were fields as far as the eye could see. On his right one kilometer away there appeared an iron bridge, directly in front of which the railway siding split o from the main line.
He rushed down the slope of the bank, jumping in short steps so as to avoid slipping. The milky white mass of fog gradually came into view.
Kyūzō soon detected the heavy echo of iron striking together. He then heard the jumbled sounds of footsteps and people speaking.
In the fog, it was best to stay low. He ventured to get as close as possible. A train! Just as he had thought.
One of the men standing there was a soldier, while the other seemed to be some type of maintenance worker. Suddenly a red light appeared in the cab of the train. It’s about to depart, Kyūzō thought, and he hurriedly slid down the embankment and ran toward the back of the vehicle. The train was surprisingly compact. There were two open freight cars, three large boxcars, two small boxcars, an additional three open freight cars, and finally two linked passenger cars in the rear. The passenger cars were of course out of the question, and the open freight cars would also prove difficult. He would thus need to choose from among the five boxcars in the middle. The small ones, with their many gaps and open glassless windows, seemed to be used for livestock transport. Yet they contained burlap sacks rather than livestock. The windowed cars would be more convenient in various ways, but the larger boxcars appeared best on account of the blowing wind.
Jay Rubin’s translations include Haruki Murakami’s novels Norwegian Woods translations include Haruki Murakami’s novels Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, After Dark, 1Q84 (with Philip Gabriel), and a number of short story collections. Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, Rubin’s part-biography, part-analysis of Murakami’s work, was published in 2002 and updated in 2012. Rubin is also a translator of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories) and Natsume Sōseki (The Miner; Sanshiro). He holds a Ph.D. in Japanese literature from the University of Chicago. While teaching at Harvard in 2005, he helped bring Haruki Murakami to the university as an artist-in-residence.
Ryan Mihaly: I want to start by considering the role of the translator in today’s global society.