Wednesday, April 02, 2003

The Bridegroom, short story collection by Ha Jin

Everybody loves Ha Jin. He won the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award for his novel Waiting, and his previous short story collections Oceans of Words and Under the Red Flag have won the PEN/Hemingway prize and The Flannery O'Connor Award for Fiction, respectively. So he's well liked. My friend Marianne likes him too, and she lent me this collection with the caveat that she wants it back, because she loves Ha Jin.

The fact that he won the PEN/Hemingway is appropriate, since his style is very reminiscent of Ernest's; Jin's prose is tight and journalistic, and nearly entirely free of poetic embellishment. At times I find him a bit dry and detached. Although I'm not a rabid Hemingway fan, his brittle prose can pack an unexpected emotional punch. Ha Jin's stories carry little of this. There is tragedy in them, but we are removed from it. In "The Woman from New York," when the returning mother is denied any access to her daughter, I perceive the injustice, feel indignation, but share none of her grief. On the one hand I can see this as a strength; in choosing not to engage the emotions Jin leaves the intellect open to the harsh realities of the situation. And yet, when I read fiction I want to feel something, too.

Ha Jin's style is so journalistic that the closest thing I can compare it to is Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's China Wakes, the prize-winning book by two New York Times journalists. So the stories are realistic, at least. I believed them, and they engaged my liberal distaste for totalitarianism and intolerance, but as fiction they were at times less than interesting. I'm thinking, in particular, of "Alive," which I found a frustrating story in its (to my mind) failure to internally connect the different states of its protagonist as he progressed into amnesia and back to remembrance. Other stories, however, notably "In the Kindergarten," "Broken," and "Flame," are well-structured and nuanced, while still others are funny and tragic at the same time. So, a mixed review; but I'm intrigued enough to want to read more.

Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, Yamamoto Tsunetomo, translated by William Scott Wilson

Hagakure was written down sometime after 1700 by a young samurai who took the words from his conversations with Yamamoto Tsunetomo, a samurai who became a Buddhist monk after the death of his lord. The practice of tsuifuku, ritual suicide of a retainer upon the death of his lord, had been outlawed in the 1660s, and so Yamamoto was not able to follow his lord as duty dictated. In the chapters of the Hagakure he discusses the ethos of the samurai through admonitions and anecdotes. The original Hagakure contained over thirteen hundred thoughts and sayings, but this translation contains only three hundred of them.

One thing that came through to me in reading this was the odd similarities between samurai culture and viking culture. Both prized death in battle and stress the virtue of saying little but speaking through actions. There are areas in which the two cultures would be at odds, but I find the parallels intriguing.

A curious thing about the collection is that Yamamoto stresses, in the case of retaliation for an affront, quick action over success. He believes that it is better to die attempting to avenge one's lord than it would be to bide one's time in order to be assured of success. Service, above all, is his most prized virtue. One's lord is to be revered and valued above one's own family and ancestors, and even the gods. His anecdotes support this, as in the tale of a retainer whose lord beat him with a scabbarded sword. When the lord dropped the sword into a ravine, the retainer fell into the ravine after it and brought it back, fully expectant that his beating would resume.

There are many glimpses such as this into the samurai culture, and into Japanese culture of the time. Yamamoto constantly derides women, for one thing, and speaks of distrust and rivalry between daimyo. He exalts samurai of earlier generations, and speaks with disdain of the shortcomings of his contemporaries.

It's difficult to draw one central idea from this text, but I found it interesting that it, at times, presented a picture of samurai which called into question the veracity of Koike and Kojima's Lone Wolf and Cub, which I had previously regarded as the most authoritative work (although fictional) on bushido and the samurai mindset. Since Hagakure is a primary source, I must give it more weight, though it having come from a late period of samurai culture, its differences may reflect the evolution of said society. In any case, this is an interesting--and at times amusing and odd--document by the real thing.