Translated from the Japanese by Jeffrey Angles.
(Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2017)
There is a line of dialogue in Robert Zemeckis’s cult science-fiction movie Back to the Future 3 between the famous Doc and Marty whereby the Doc describes a piece of computer chip by saying it was a piece of junk and could be “such a big problem. No wonder this circuit failed… It says: Made in Japan.” The answer from Marty is the following: “What do you mean, Doc? All the best stuff is made in Japan.” Marty was being flippant, but based on my own recent experiences digging into Orikuchi Shinobu’s The Book of the Dead, I can wholeheartedly confirm his claim. The Book of the Dead is certainly a great way to spend some time reading and, first and foremost, admiring the erudite approach to literature by an author who remains relatively unknown to Western audiences.
Orikuchi Shinobu is a very interesting figure in Japanese literature and Japanese culture in general, considering the fact that he is best known for his work in folk literature, ethnographic studies, poetry, and fiction. He was born in 1887 – five years after the birth of James Joyce, and nine years before Andre Breton. There is no doubt that Orikuchi’s literature oeuvre has profoundly shaped the contemporary view of the Japanese on their pre-modern past, while strongly influencing Japanese folk art and literature at the same time. Although belonging to a different era, a different literature discourse, and a different Japan than today’s, Orikuchi is still very inventive and, one would quite rightly say, a very contemporary literary persona. The Book of the Dead offers potentially the best testimony to this fact.
While being perhaps Orikuchi Shinobu’s best work of fiction, The Book of the Dead (originally Shisha no Sho, prior to its translation into English by Jeffrey Angles), is a story about a rather unusual romance between The Maiden, a young woman, and a dead prince who suddenly finds himself waking up, having been resurrected inside his own tomb. If that premise alone does not trigger your imagination, it would at least invite you to a magical world where the abstract and the real, as well as myth and history, are repeatedly intermingling. Along the way, we witness characters experiencing changes by being engulfed in strange visions, various styles of writing transformations, and vast amounts of historical interfering. In fact, the whole novel is homage to Japanese pre-modern history, with Orikuchi’s interventions and interpretations. (Moreover, one of the main characters of the novel is Ōtomo no Yakamochi ca. 718-785, a statesman and poet who compiled the first-ever collection of poetry in Japanese).
As the novel progresses, the fable-like premise does not develop in a pellucid way. Many things are happening; we can even see the reason of logical conditionality, but there are no explicit explanations for them. There is even no chronological order, as the plot moves backward and forward, changing the space-time continuum of our reading practice.
This novel can be defined as a sort of magical fantasy; it is certainly not science-fiction or fairytale; it is neither Gogol’s nor E.T.A. Hoffman’s ferocious breaking of reality through the abstract and unreal. The Book of the Dead is a somewhere between the Egyptian Book of the Dead and a simple love story between two unusual protagonists. The narrator does not center on the dead man in the title, but he keeps the attention on the maiden and how she expresses her vision of the Buddhist Pure Land. That focus of the raconteur story provides us with a storyline that can work as a real lyrical saga about passive fantasy, and a huge desire for life, a story about various voices overlapping the shaping of a dispersive, yet not chaotic piece of art. Within the circumstances of his narrative, Orikuchi created a world in which not everything is possible, while, at the same time, almost nothing is impossible, a phantasmagorical cosmos that is moderating the real chaos composed of a scrambled timeline and spatial disorder. We can surf through the characters’ streams of consciousness all the way to the surreal side of the story, connecting in a way (if I may be so liberal as to make such a connection) Orikuchi with Joyce’s and Breton’s literature.
Stylistically, translator Angles has retained the peculiar onomatopoeic invention of Orikuchi’s original novel. It can be confusing, especially to Western readers, but results in some of the most interesting descriptions and provides room for open interpretation. For instance, the use of shhta for water falling from the surface on a rock can be exactly pronounced as Šta in the Serbian language meaning What. More to the point, Orikuchi uses shhhhto, to describe rain and, again, it can be pronounced as Što, which stands for Why in Serbian. Finally, Tssuta, which Orikuchi is using for the bloom of azaleas may be pronounced precisely as Cuta, which stands for Bloom in the Macedonian language. Clearly, these languages are not necessarily connected with the original Japanese, which provides an additional credit to this novel and creates a picture of it as a Pandora’s Box that contains a vast number of possible semantic and semiotic interpretations.
The Book of the Dead is a highly mannered novel: episodic, impressionistic, and whimsical. It can be read on multiple levels and interpreted in different ways. It is highly suggestive in mixing complex narratives and intertextual connections with history, folklore, literature, and, above all, human imagination. Although the story in the novel takes place in the ancient past of Japan, the technique of the author is very modern in its incorporation of an experimental narrative, such as a semi-omniscient narrator, stream-of-consciousness, non-chronological presentations of the events, and, finally, the use of fragmented sentences. One might say that this novel is not only a bridge between the inner life of ancient and modern Japan, but also between the then-nascent Japanese modernist style of writing and western literature.
What is most important and must not be forgotten about this novel is the fact that it is in its essence a love story, albeit between a ghost and an imaginary person, with love as most valued clause for happiness and original artistic creation.
| | |
Dalibor Plečić holds an MA degree in philology from the Department of World and Comparative Literature. He is a book reviewer for Booksa, Beton, and Versopolis magazines from Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia respectively. Plečić has authored one novel, as well as a collection of short stories and essays on science fiction in literature. Aside from writing prose, he has been writing and delivering performance poetry at several European poetry festivals, as well as translating prose from and into a number of different languages. His portfolio also includes several texts for a film screenplay.