DISCUSSED IN THE ESSAY:
Tun-huang, by Yasushi Inoue (trans. Jean Oda Moy). NYRB Classics. $14.95, 240pp.
Yasushi Inoue was one of the most popular and critically acclaimed Japanese writers of the twentieth century—winner of every major Japanese prize, a perennial Nobel candidate, his books made into movies for more than half a century and widely translated. Certainly no Japanese writer between Natsume Soseki and Haruki Murakami, in my view, including Japan’s two excellent Nobel prize winners, gives such intense and consistent literary pleasure. In English, though, he has never even attained the status of being “rediscovered” every decade or two. A university press published a retranslation of The Blue Wolf, Inoue’s novel about Genghis Khan that was the basis for the recent blockbuster movie Genghis, in 2007, and before that was The Samurai Banner of Furin Kazan (basis for a 1969 movie starring Toshiro Mifune) in an almost unreadable translation in 2005—that’s been pretty much it in recent years.
His Internet presence in English is minimal too, though it does reveal how much more of his work has been translated into other European languages. One happily hunts through what there is and pieces together what one can. The English translation of Inoue’s autobiographical novel Shirobamba is only the first half of the original, but the second half exists in French, as Kôsaku; the novella that launched his career, The Bullfight, is untranslated in English but available in French and German. One translator’s introduction says that Inoue went to the United States in 1964 to research “what he personally believes will be his magnum opus, a multi-volume treatment of first, second, and third generation Japanese abroad, particularly in the United States,” then a preface mentions traveling to San Francisco in 1964 to do research for a novel called The Ocean (Wadatsumi); a 1975 introduction says that Inoue “is currently working on Wadatsumi, a historical novel of epic proportions”; and the note in a 1985 anthology at last mentions “Wadatsumi (God of the sea, 1977), a detailed study of Japanese emigration to the United States”—so he finished it, and there the trail grows cold, for now.
I mention this amateur’s—lover’s—treasure hunt because its delights are Inoue-ish delights, present in the books themselves. The main character of A Voice in the Night is an amateur expert on the poems from the eighth-century anthology Manyoshu; in “death, love, and the waves,” the main character brings the thirteenth-century Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, in the English translation from 1900, to finish reading before the suicide he has planned. The Roof Tile of Tempyō, like Tun-huang though set a few centuries earlier, has beautiful descriptions of monks who copy out Buddhist scriptures. In Black Tide, a retired schoolteacher has spent his life writing a cultural history of color in Japan, rediscovering and re-creating the old materials and methods so as to bring to life the colors of the past as they really looked:
to understand the ancient Japanese people’s spiritual and psychological relationship to color—in the broadest sense, to understand the inner lives of the men and women of the past and the social mentality of the time—it was absolutely essential to have a concrete sense of the ancient colors, and there was obviously only one way to do it: manufacture once again the hues of the old colors using the dyeing techniques of the past.
After some forty years of work, the schoolteacher has finished his studies and dyed enough silk to tip swatches of all the colors—including the legendary, forbidden hajizome, “like the rays of the sun as it crosses the meridian”—into five hundred copies of his three-volume work, if he can get it printed in the tight postwar years. Inoue himself as a historical novelist is well-known for his thorough research—he is said to have climbed Mount Hodaka four times to gather material for his novel about mountain climbing, The Ice Wall. In the author’s preface in the novel, he describes his five years of researching Tun-huang as “a very satisfying time.”
Yasushi Inoue, the oldest son of an army medical officer, was born in 1907 in northern Japan but grew up on the Izu peninsula on the southern coast, the bucolic setting of many of his stories. He was raised by his “grandmother” Kano, in a separate house from his parents—in fact, Kano was his mother’s grandfather’s mistress, and the old man had arranged for Kano to adopt his oldest granddaughter, Inoue’s mother, so that Inoue’s mother would have to look after the former mistress in her old age. It was a formidable tangle of resentments and split allegiances that Inoue grew up in, living with a proud but affectionate old woman a few blocks away from the house where his blood relatives lived: mother and father, when his father was not posted elsewhere; “real” maternal grandparents, who despised the interloper from the pleasure quarters; and aunts and uncles, Inoue’s mother’s much younger siblings, including some as young as Inoue himself. Whether because his parents traveled, because Kano needed him for her own power struggle, or because Inoue’s mother couldn’t raise two young children without help after the birth of Inoue’s sister, he was “temporarily” sent to live with Kano, who was nevertheless his main emotional support, much more than the parents who resented her and had seemingly abandoned him. His feelings of longing and rejection, ability to understand mixed emotional motives, and tendency to turn to nature for solace all date from those years and are grippingly dramatized in Shirobamba and his other stories of childhood. In one story, “Reeds,” Inoue relates a memory of himself at age five or six, with Kano at a fishing village on the Izu peninsula. They are sitting on a beach and looking at a festive boat while waiting for someone to appear. Inoue doesn’t remember why Kano has brought him here, or who it is they are waiting for, but there they are: “if I have not forgotten the scene to this day, it must be because this image, in which I myself play a part, has something luminous and peaceful about it, but also something strangely empty.”
Inoue excelled at judo and wrote poetry, graduated from Kyoto university in 1936 with a degree in aesthetics and a thesis on Valéry, and except for a stint in the army for a few months in 1937–38, “most of it marching with pack horses about the plains of north China,” he worked as a reporter for the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper in Osaka until 1951. His career as a fiction writer began late and meteorically, in his early forties, when The Bullfight won Japan’s most prestigious writing award, the Akutagawa prize, in 1949, and his masterpiece The Hunting Gun was published almost simultaneously. He retired from the newspaper to pursue writing full-time, and by his death in 1991 he had published some fifty novels and novellas and close to two hundred stories.
Although he is often described as a historical novelist, his work falls into three or four main categories. The historical fiction translated into English includes Tun-huang; The Roof Tile of Tempyō; The Blue Wolf; Wind and Waves, a novel about Kublai Khan’s invasion of Korea; Confucius; Flood; and Loulan, a book of short stories. His second type of fiction is contemporary love stories, preeminently The Hunting Gun, an exquisite book showcasing one of Inoue’s great strengths—his remarkably sympathetic, complex, and true female characters. The Hunting Gun is everything the ultimately disappointing Akutagawa story “In a Grove” (the basis of Rashomon) is supposed to be: a love story with multiple narrators where each narrative dramatically reshapes our understanding of the rest. Inoue’s third type of story addresses the social and political aspects of postwar Japanese society, often with reporter protagonists much like Inoue himself before his retirement: these books—Black Tide, The Bullfight, The Ice Wall, and later reflections on postwar social changes, A Voice in the Night and Mister Ushioda’s Sundays—have tended not to be translated into English. Lastly, there are Inoue’s personal writings: a novel of childhood, Shirobamba (and Kôsaku); a book of childhood stories, Nuages garance (The Clouds Dyed Red); and a moving nonfictional account of his mother’s descent into old age and dementia, Chronicle of My Mother. There are crossovers between these categories—The Ice Wall, for instance, is based on a real-life mountaineering accident and the resulting scandal involving an important company’s controversial new product, nylon rope, but it is also an intense double love triangle—and they have certainly been modified in my own mind with each new book I come across. A Voice in the Night rails against modern life, which gives Inoue’s historical writing a more escapist tinge; the third and weakest story in The Counterfeiter and Other Stories, about contemporary Japanese businessmen, reveals its place in his oeuvre only after Black Tide and The Ice Wall; if I ever get to read The Ocean or God of the Sea, I am sure my sense of his work will be reshaped again.
Still, it is probably safe to say that his historical works are central to Inoue’s art. They are certainly unique among historical fiction. Inoue has a wonderful eye for the historical detail as striking image: “The fifty men . . . banded together with drawn swords and entered the city. inside was a pond full of clear water and two horses standing by its edge, but not a single human being was in sight”; “it was the time of the year when the white grass used for camel fodder grew abundantly”; “it snowed for four days in January, six days in February, and three days in March” (all these examples are from Tun-huang). When the main character of Tun-huang looks over the Hsi-Hsia–Chinese dictionary he had compiled, “several words . . . leapt to his eye: thunder, sunlight, sweet dew, whirlwind.” More important, Inoue’s books feel lived from within, not described from without, despite the scrupulous research. No less an image-maker and prose magician than Peter Handke, who has no patience for most historical fiction, wrote in an open letter to Inoue that
The unique thing about your work, for me—and the books of yours I feel closest to are The Roof Tile of Tempyō and Tun-huang—is that every story presents a vision, and that unlike the visions in books by other authors, I can always follow the vision as I’m reading, always believe it; you have lived and felt these images and have the simplest and airiest language for them that I have ever seen. I don’t need to first believe your illuminations, they are simply there in the book, as facts.
One short story with an especially virtuosic example of Inoue’s conjuring power is “under the shadow of Mt. Bandai,” about a volcanic eruption in 1888 that destroyed the surrounding villages and created a lake district in their place. It uses the only first-person narrator I know of in Inoue’s historical fiction, a tax collector visiting and inspecting the villages on the mountain, and at one point he describes the following:
Around ten o’clock we reached the village of Hosono. I call it a village though it consisted of no more than seven households. They were nice, sturdy houses clustered together on a narrow piece of land closed in on the east and west by the peaks of Hachimori and Tsurugigamine. The encroaching hills seemed to crowd into the village on both sides. This was truly a mountain hamlet. The main work of the men there was logging, and each of the houses had a small shed attached which looked something like a chicken coop. Here the family kept a wood lathe or two. The farming was left to the women, and when we arrived at the village there was no sign of them because they were all out in the fields.
It is the most basic description one could imagine of things simply seen, though impressive upon closer inspection for its encapsulated social history and personal touches (the houses “nice,” the surrounding hills that “seemed to crowd into the village”). At the end of the story, the narrator says: “Though I have related this story in some detail, the fact is that I have never gone back to visit the area” after the eruption, “and it is unlikely that I ever shall.” But of course 1888 was before Inoue was born, and it was always impossible for Inoue to see what the story describes, which since 1888 has been at the bottom of a lake. And yet everything about the village of Hosono is “simply there in the book, as facts.” The presence of a first-person narrator turns the story into a sort of invisible manifesto of Inoue’s own art of bringing the past to life: the past that is always under water and volcanic ash, always somewhere we will never return.
Tun-huang (1959) is perhaps Inoue’s greatest novel in his greatest genre. The NYRB edition reprints in the very fine 1978 translation by Jean Oda Moy (also the translator of Inoue’s most personal books in English, Shirobamba and Chronicle of My Mother), which has aged well except for the vexed matter of Chinese proper names: she used, of course, the older transliteration system, which may add to the confusion of any readers already familiar with Dunhuang (Tun-huang), the western Xia kingdom or Xi-Xia (Hsi-Hsia), etc.
Tun-huang has been an important city for millennia, on the Chinese end of the silk road, and the nearby Mogao Grottoes or Thousand Buddha Caves, filled with statues, paintings, frescoes, and inscriptions dating back to the fourth through fourteenth centuries, are one of the greatest art sites in the world. The cave now prosaically known as Cave 17 kept its secrets for close to nine centuries—from around 1036, when an incomparable storehouse of books and documents was sealed up inside for reasons that have never been determined, until 1907, when a Hungarian-British archaeologist, Marc Aurel Stein, learned about the library’s existence from a Chinese Taoist priest who had stumbled upon the cave a few years before. The library was of incalculable historical, religious, and cultural importance— containing, to name just one example, the world’s earliest known printed book, a diamond sutra scroll sixteen feet long with the precise date of printing on the colophon: May 11, 868—and for nearly twenty years a series of European, Japanese, and American scholar-adventurers negotiated with (or cheated) the priest to recover (or steal) thousands upon thousands of artifacts. The best telling of this unbelievable story is still Peter Hopkirk’s swashbuckling book from 1980, Foreign Devils on the Silk Road; the best reconstruction of the 11th-century events is Inoue’s novel.
No further historical background is needed to enjoy Tun-huang, since the book itself and Inoue’s preface give all the necessary information and the history they present is substantially accurate by the standards of today’s scholarship. It is true that sources other than the official Chinese histories would be less inclined to call all non-Chinese peoples “tribes,” or refer to Yüan-hao conquering a few large prefectures in what is now northwest China as “conquering Central Asia”; it may also be worth noting that the Uighurs mentioned in the book were not the same as the Uighur people of today, though some of them may have been the ancestors of today’s Uighurs. The Islamization of Central Asia had proceeded west of the Pamirs, and east of them only in the great oasis cities of Kashgar and Khotan at the western end of the Tarim basin, thus Inoue is mistaken when he writes that “the Muslims” invaded the Tun-huang area from the west—Khotan was growing into an important power, but its political ambitions in that period lay westward, not east toward China. Such quibbles aside, Inoue’s historical narrative is perfectly reliable.
It is also enchanting fiction, and I encourage anyone who has not yet read the novel to skip the rest of this essay and fall under its spell for yourself. It opens in a classic mold— young hero from the provinces shows up to make his name in the capital—when suddenly he falls asleep in the sun. His dream is a clever way for Inoue to give the necessary exposition, and when the hero wakes up it is a different book—a novel’s dream-world. Hsing-te is no longer strong and super-competent, as he is said to be before his exams, but physically weak and psychologically adrift. The battle scenes exemplify his new life: he slings the stones he has and then faints, tied to his horse, leaving the rest to fate. Like Stendhal, Inoue uses war not as a canvas for the hero’s expression of purposeful, heroic free will but to show how larger forces utterly overwhelm our puny claims to individual choice and meaning. Unlike Stendhal, though, Inoue doesn’t seem to see a conflict between greater forces and human action: Hsing-te feels carried along by fate, and at several key moments in the book he changes his mind for no reason, in a way that makes him seem absolutely real. Near the end, wondering why his life had turned out the way it did, “he could think of no undue pressures on him, nor any strong influence other than his own free choice. Just as water flows from higher to lower levels, he, too, had merely followed the natural course of events. . . . If he could relive his life, he would probably travel the same route given the same circumstances.” The textbook metaphor of determinism is here an image of perfectly free meandering, not opposed to personal choice.
The luminous, gentle tone of these passages is central to Inoue’s art. Leon Picon, in his 1965 introduction to The Counterfeiter and Other Stories, says that “human pathos and suffering, loneliness and isolation, oriental fatalism and Buddhistic concepts of predestination form dominant strands in the fabric of virtually all of the writing of Yasushi Inoue,” and while I can’t exactly disagree, I am certainly dissatisfied with the dated cliches, and suspicious of the capitalized Orientalisms on display here. The note in The Sh̄wa Anthology is surely closer to the center of the truth, characterizing Inoue’s work as “the examination of the faintest ripples of cultural interchange between Japan and the outside world, ripples often created by lonely individuals who remain essentially nameless and faceless in the annals of official history.” I would say—aware that my own reflections will no doubt seem time bound and off-key in a few decades, not to mention the centuries that are Inoue’s usual time scale—that Inoue’s great theme, spanning his historical, contemporary, and autobiographical works, is how the life you lead is not your real life. What we think of as our personal struggles—our decisions, desires, deliberations, the choices we make and the things we do—are less real, less to be trusted, and perhaps ultimately less important than the wider forces of historical destiny or the cultural past or the way we started to feel as a child, or simply the fact that other people are not who we think they are, and nor are we.
The challenge of any historical fiction—especially a book structured like this one, leading up to an important historical event that readers know about before they begin—is how to make the story nonetheless feel like life. (If there is anything essential to the experience of living your life, it is that you don’t know what will happen next.) Near the end of the book, transporting the library of scrolls to the cave, Hsing-te looks at “the sight of sixty large [camels], each loaded down with scrolls and documents, advancing across the moon-bathed desert,” and finds “something moving” about the vision, though he “could not define why it was so. he wondered whether it might be that he had been wandering around the frontier regions for years just for this night.” In a certain literal sense, he’s right: Inoue did build a whole book of Hsing-te’s wanderings just to get him to that night. Yet somehow Hsing-te and history itself have kept their freedom, their feeling of choice and drift and life, throughout this remarkable novel.
Damion Searls is the author of What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going and the translator of Hans Keilson’s Comedy in a Minor Key, praised on the front page of The New York Times as a “masterpiece” in an “eloquent translation.” This piece appears as the introduction to a reissue of Yasushi Inoue’s Tun-Huang published by NYRB Classics.
 The Counterfeiter and Other Stories (Tuttle, 1965), p. 9; Tun-huang, (NYRB, 2010), p. xxii; The Roof Tile of Tempyō (University of Tokyo Press, 1975), p. xvi; The Showa anthology:Modern Japanese Short Stories (Kodansha International, 1985), p. 247.
 Schwarze flut, translated by Otto Putz (Auhrkamp, 2000), quotations from pp. 21 and 176; my translation from German.
 “Les roseaux,” in Combat de taureaux: nouvelles, translated by Catherine Ancelot (Stock, 1997), p. 179; my translation from French.
 James T. Araki, translator’s introduction to The Roof Tile of Tempyo, p. xiv. Apparently, Inoue was allowed to return to Japan due to athlete’s foot. on November 2, 2009, the Chinese People’s Daily Online reported that Inoue’s wartime diaries had been discovered in his widow’s house after her death, but there does not seem to be any other information available about his wartime activities.
 Brief an Iasushi Inoue,” dated March 14, 1988, in Langsam im Schatten (Suhrkamp, 1992), pp. 62–63, quotation from p. 62; my translation.
 The story can be found in The Showa Anthology, translated by Stephen W. Kohl, pp. 246–68, quotations from pp. 254–55 and 268.
 My thanks to Jonathan Lipman, professor of Asian studies at Mount Holyoke College, for the historical information in this paragraph.
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