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Saturday, 15 November 2014

The Budding Tree - Six Stories of Love in Edo - Aiko Kitahara (translated by Ian MacDonald)

Aiko Kitahara was born in 1938 and began her fiction career whilst working as a copywriter. She won the Shincho Prize for New Writers for her novel-length “Mama didn’t know” (Mama was shiranakattanoyo) and was runner up in the Shosetsu Gendai Prize for New Writers with her novella “Powder Snow Flies” (Kona yuki mau) in 1969. Her work “The Budding Tree” (Koiwasuregusa “Forget-Me-Not” the original Japanese title) won the Naoki Prize in 1993. She won the Yoshikawa Eiji Prize for Literature in 2005 for “Until Dawn” (Yo no akeru made) and has written an extremely popular detective series, currently running to thirteen volumes, which has been turned into a television series.

This work, “The Budding Tree – Six Stories of Love in Edo”, contains six short stories, all interconnected in some way, and set in the early 1800’s, the later part of the Edo period, and introduces us to six women’s tales:

In 1829, as the thirteenth year of the Bunsei era was drawing to a close amid a series of natural disasters, the government had attempted to improve the country’s fortunes by changing the era name to Tempo – but to no avail. In the five years since then, continued crop failures had triggered devastating famines throughout northeastern Japan, from Mutsu and Dewa provinces down through the northern Kanto region. In Edo the price of rice had shot up. In normal times, a hundred mon had bought twelve or thirteen go of rice. This year in June it hit an all-time high – now the same amount of money bought just four and a half go. As though trying to keep up, other commodities such as sake, soy sauce, and salt had also become much more expensive.

Our collection begins with “Love’s Chill Wind” and Hagino a twenty-five year old school teacher who had been approached to marry a forty-five year old. Her father had set up the school, using his good reputation, and after he had passed away she had struggled to keep the school afloat, given she was a female teacher. She takes in a mid-20’s male student from the local store so he can improve his handwriting. She is subject to bribery for a crime her father committed and scandal is the last thing she needs. Of course a subtle and embarrassed tale of love ensues.

Our next story, “Eight-tenths a man”, introduces Kanae (professionally known as Hasegawa Riko), a principal calligrapher. She copies out “drafts of books by popular gesaku writers before they were carved onto wooden blocks for printing.” Another case of a mysterious name for our main character, with a profession outside of what was considered normal female duties at the time. Only story two and we have a lead struggling with her identity.

Each of our stories are linked in some way to the previous tale:

She hadn’t always had taken such pride in her work. On the contrary, she had thought of quitting on numerous occasions. But now she saw the wisdom of something her friend Hagino, a school-teacher, had once told her: whenever she saw one of her formerly illiterate students learning to write difficult Chinese characters, she felt a tremendous sense of satisfaction that enabled her to forget all the nasty slurs about her being an old maid who was just trying to follow in her father’s footsteps.

Read the first sentence of that quote again – clunky? I think so, and this collection is littered with similar examples.

Our love tale here is that two stories arrive for her to “copy out the drafts”, from two different authors, but the same publisher, same illustrator, same release date, however the stories are too similar. The unknown author she feels is “dripping with pathos and emotion” and would be popular with female readers. It is to this man that she has an attraction.

Our third tale is “No Time for Tears” where we meet another with a hidden identity, this time Oen, who has the stage name Takemoto Shichinosuke, a singer with samurai admirers. At just seventeen years of age she has attracted a twenty-four year old admirer, with one “red and swollen boil sitting right on the tip of his nose”, she can’t been seen with him! She also has an older admirer who she rendezvous with, however he seems to have lost interest as he is infatuated with a copyist who has been preparing his advertising flyers (the link to story two).

What a young jouri singer such as herself needed were steady patrons she could rely on. She was only interested in scions of samurai families with large annual incomes who were willing to actually pay for her company. Less well-heeled samurai would spring for a cheap ticket at a vaudeville theater to see her perform once or twice a month and offer to escort her home, but they were no good to her at all when she needed some extra cash. Even worse ere the second and third sons of samurai families, who were as likely as not to end up burdens to their elder brothers. Such fans were totally worthless to her.

Oen has lovers and admirers everywhere but she is simply in love with her music, “Oen took from these two men what was necessary for her music; money and her sensuality.” The provincial samurai live their lives though her success, an abandoned child come good.

Story four, “Innocent in Love” follows Okun who runs a boutique which sells “fashionable and exquisitely crafted hairpins”,

With a rueful smile, Okun turned over in bed. She had been dreaming she was making love to a man whose face she couldn’t quite make out, and his touch remained with her even now that she was awake. Widely considered by those who knew her to be indifferent to men, Okun felt that her dream had revealed something deep within her being that she herself had long ignored.

As our stories unfold the theme of love moves from infatuation and embarrassment to more physical but each character is always struggling with their identity, each character is alone (having lost their parents) and each character is building a new life with jobs that are usually performed by men in a male dominated society.

In this tale Okun has created a business model whereby more simple hair pins are designed, which use less sliver and are therefore more affordable. Her dream is to have every woman in Edo wearing her pins. But not all of her designs are a success…

A childhood school friend, Hidesaburo, comes to buy each new pin design and used her concepts to engrave candles with names that are rumoured to cast a love spell. Okun’s attraction is of course to this married man.

“Forget Me Not”, is the fifth tale in our collection, and the title tale of the Japanese version of this work. Here we follow Oichi, a landscape artist, who is approached to produce one-hundred famous views of Edo. She is also in love with a married man, a father, who is a woodblock carver, of course she needs to interact with him to produce her works. Again we have a strong willed woman who has sacrificed her own happiness, and future prospects of being a mother, for her career – another common theme. Oichi’s tale is one of scorned love, the life of being a mistress, always coming second to the simple comforts of “home”.

Our final story is “The Budding Tree”, where we meet Okaji a restaurant owner. During her story she helps a stricken family, due to the famine, and is repaid by theft, accusations of being self-serving and is taken advantage of – a simple life lesson? Okaji’s ex-husband also runs a restaurant, one more glamorous, but one losing extreme amounts of money during the famine period. Besides being taken advantage of by the starving family, Okaji also has to deal with her scheming and lying ex-husband. The budding tree is the symbol of rebirth, a new beginning. In this tale the tenuous link to the artist Oichi is brought up near the conclusion, it appears so forced it reads as though the writer needed to add it as an afterthought.

Personally I found this collection contained overbearing metaphors and allegories, the linkages between the stories tenuous at times and forced at others. This is not to mention the translation and the editing, a clunky mess, whereby I had to read some sections over and over again to understand the plot or to create the rhythm which had been destroyed by poor punctuation. The quotes I have used are verbatim, spelling and punctuation errors included and I haven’t simply found a few poor ones to replicate here, the whole book reads like that. An unfortunate conclusion as I’m sure this could have been a beautiful and memorable work. Poor translation and editing outcomes have happened to me on a few occasions with Dalkey Archive books, which is a pity as it simply means I will possibly avoid their publications as I tread more wearily. Could it be a result of their massive output? Quantity doesn’t equate to quality.

As an aside, I attempted to purchase some Dalkey Archive works during the week and was quoted USD$33.50 for postage of a single book. I contacted the publisher to see if there were other options, this was their reply:

Thanks for your message. The shipping seemed outrageous to me as well. I checked UPS, FedEx, and US postal system.
   The cheapest is the postal system: $42.75; UPS was next at $89 (!!!!), FedEx was about the same s UPS.
   Yes, I know, it's insane. They must be sending them business class.
   Things such as this make E-books inevitable.


I don’t use e-books, and my questions were not really answered, looks like the one remaining Dalkey archive work on the shelf will be the last you’ll be seeing me review.


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1 comment:

Tony Malone said...

Ah, postage... The Book Depository is really the only option for Aussies - free delivery and fairly good prices. If only Amazon hadn't bought them out, your conscience would be clear :(

As for the translation, that sentence is simply a typo that nobody's spotted - for all Dalkey's reputation, I've had a couple of books where the proof-reading has left a little to be desired...