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June 22, 2012

Basho’s Journey: Bleached bones on the Narrow Road (Book Review)

Basho is by far the most popular Japanese author. Strangely enough, there still is no annotated scholarly translation of his complete work. The Narrow Road has been translated tens of times, and a few hundred of his most popular haiku exist in countless versions (there is even a whole book dedicated to different versions of the famous frog haiku), but too much remains neglected.

This is not fair: why, for example, a complete Shakepeare translation in Japanese and only popular anthologies of Basho in English? It is all the more strange as Basho's work is not particularly extensive and easily fits into two volumes in Japanese.

As much as the Narrow Road has received the attention of translators (not always in a positive way, it has been mangled badly by some "translators" who didn't know Japanese), so little attention has been paid to Basho's other prose.

Along comes David Landis Barnhill's Basho's Journey: The Literary Prose of Matsuo Basho (State University of New York Press, 2005). Still not a complete translation of Basho's prose (no letters, for example), but thanks to the high level of the translation and the sensitivity of the translator to Basho's nuances the best we have now.

Barnhill has translated Basho’s five travelogues (Journey of Bleached Bones in a Field, Kashima Journal, Knapsack Notebook, Sarashima Journal and Narrow Road to the Deep North) as well as his only literary diary, the Saga Diary. In addition, there is selection of more than 80 haibun, short poetic prose sketches that often contain a haiku.

In fact, these haibun often relate the circumstances under which a certain haiku was written. Although Basho can sometimes shift the truth a bit for literary effect as he did in the Narrow Road, in principle these pieces are not fiction. One could see the longer travelogues as a series of haibun strung together.

This all goes back to the East-Asian theory and practice of poetry where the lyrical poem (including the haiku) is seen as a sincere response to a situation in which the poet finds himself. This situation can be social, political, or even just a beautiful landscape, but is always grounded in the biography of the author.

This is contrary to modern Western poetical theories, of which there is of course a whole variety, but what they have in common is the separation of poem and poet. In one theory, the poem is a conscious artifact that stands on itself.

Basho’s haibun demonstrate that East-Asian poets themselves (the same tradition exists in China and Korea) saw this differently - and we should take that into consideration when we read their work.

Another point is that much of Basho’s hokku and haibun had a social function, that is they were written as memorials or farewell gifts – in other words, they functioned as occasional poetry.

Haruo Shirane in Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho has admirably called our attention to the fact that this is also the case for the hokku, which as opening of a renga session, often were meant to praise the host of the occasion, or the genus loci of the place.

So far my own ruminations, now back to the book.

Barnhill offers the most comprehensive collection of Basho's prose available and the texts have been beautifully translated into English. Therefore they supplant older translations, such as the renderings by Nobuyuki Yuasa in Penguin Books.

There is only one exception: in the case of the Narrow Road I still prefer Hiroaki Sato's Basho's Narrow Road, with its full apparatus of notes.

In the introduction, Barnhill has an interesting discussion of Basho's nature view and the influence of his haibun on American contemporary nature writing and environmental thought.

To conclude, we are grateful that Barnhill has made these important pieces available in excellent and accessible translations, but that scholarly translation of the Complete Works of Basho still remains a dream...