It’s no secret that I’m an admirer of Japanese culture, and more than partial to the occasional slice of the country’s literature, but that preference can at times be a double-edged sword. You see, when writers from other countries decide to set their work in Japan, my spider senses are immediately on edge, often with good reason. So, while I immediately liked the sound (and the look…) of today’s book, I was also a little wary, fearing another disappointing look at my old home through western eyes. Let’s see if this one manages to avoid falling into the trap of exoticism and exploitation…
The Office of Garden and Ponds (translated by Euan Cameron, review copy courtesy of MacLehose Press) sees French writer Didier Decoin delving into ancient Japanese history to tell his story. It begins in the provincial village of Shimae, where Katsuro, the expert carp fisherman responsible for supplying the temples of the Japanese capital with their beautiful fish, has tragically drowned. After a brief period of mourning, his widow, Miyuki, takes on the arduous challenge of fulfilling his final order. Once she has chosen eight suitable specimens and prepared two baskets to hang from a yoke she will carry across her back, she sets off on the path to Kyoto, hoping that at least some of the fish will survive the journey.
As you might imagine, this is no easy task. The journey is long, her load is heavy, and threats abound in rather dangerous times away from the relative safety of her village. Even if she does make it to the capital, there are more clouds on the horizon. The times are changing, and in the grand scheme of things, nobody cares about a woman from the provinces, or even the fate of her anonymous home. However, the capital is preparing for an important and extravagant event, and as it turns out, Miyuki may be more useful than anyone could imagine.
The Heian Era (the age of Genji) is a popular time period for modern writers, and Decoin is merely following in the path set out by several Japanese works (such as Fumiko Enchi’s A Tale of False Fortunes) in setting his book at this time. Certain clues he drops allow us to date the action to the early 11th century, with Fujiwara no Michinaga named as regent, and an appearance by a boy emperor who is probably Go-Ichijō. The story can be split into two main parts, with the first half of the book describing Miyuki’s journey to Kyoto. While it might seem a strange thing for the widow to do, it turns out that she’s thinking less of herself than of her dead husband, and the place they called home:
It was not that she was too young to die – at the age of twenty-seven, she had reached the average life expectancy for a peasant woman and could consider herself happy with the portion of existence that had been assigned to her – but that she had shared certain of Katsuro’s secrets and now there was no-one apart from her to maintain the privileged relationship the village had with the Imperial Court at Heian Kyō: the provision of special carp to serve as living ornaments in the temple ponds, in exchange for which the inhabitants of this collection of rickety humpbacked huts known as Shimae benefited from a virtual exemption of taxes, not to mention the small gifts from Watanabe Nagusa, the Director of the Office of Gardens and Ponds, which Katsuro never failed to bring back for them.
p.6 (MacLehose Press, 2019)
It’s not quite that simple, though, and there’s danger around every corner, whether that means pirates or greedy travellers wanting a quick fish supper. The length of time the writer devotes to the trip is justified by the reality of travel for poor folk in ancient times. When every mile must be travelled on foot, it all makes for a rather arduous undertaking.
The second half of the story is set in the capital, beginning with Miyuki’s arrival at the Office of Gardens and Ponds. The Director, Watanabe Nagusa, is an old man tired of the way events are turning out in the capital, and welcoming a filthy woman from the provinces is the last thing he needs, given the perfume contest the young Emperor has just announced. However, the woman’s scent, initially repellent, takes on a new life, and he soon realises that she’s exactly what he needs at this point. From here, it’s a matter of bringing her into his plan to make a big splash at the contest.
Miyuki and Watanabe are two very different people brought together for a brief instant, but they actually have more in common than they realise. The jaded Watanabe is ready to give his duties up (he’s already looking forward to a happy, peaceful death…), and this enables him to take risks that others wouldn’t. Miyuki also turns out to be surprisingly bold, unphased by her first visit to the capital. Watanabe’s assistant’s attempts to cow her with the majesty of Kyoto crumble in the face of her indifference. She simply wants to release her fish safely into the temple ponds – she has no time for gaping around in awe.
Interestingly, The Office of Gardens and Ponds has Decoin choosing a time before the major upheaval (a bloody civil war) detailed in The Tale of the Heike. At the time the novel is set, the Fujiwara, or ‘Taira’ clan, have managed to take control of most major offices, with the Minamoto, or ‘Genji’, clan in decline. Watanabe, a veteran of the capital’s politics, has a sombre view of what’s been happening:
Depleted by a dynasty that took what it needed to ensure its own growth, the essence of the empire was draining away rather like a crab that sheds its shell, but then, having rid itself of its small carapace, realises that it has not produced a replacement exoskeleton and is thus condemned to such sluggishness that its days become numbered. (p.160)
The result of the Fujiwaras sucking up money and power is the steady collapse of infrastructure and the standard of living outside the capital, although Watanabe’s grumpiness and cynicism owes more to the decline in status of his office. Like Miyuki, he faces a rather uncertain future.
This is true for the country as a whole. Examples of how dangerous life has become include pirates attacking the inn Miyuki stays at (and the behaviour of the bushi warriors sent to help) and the Taira nobleman Miyuki finds murdered and violated by the river. Meanwhile, over in the capital, the pampered nobles are preparing for the perfume competition. The fall of the Fujiwara may still be over a century away, but this does all smack of fiddling while Kyoto burns…
Initially, I was a little unhappy with the way the writer treats Miyuki, with an early, overly graphic sex scene seeming a little unnecessary. However, gradually it becomes clear that the writer’s aim is to bring the people of long ago to life, to humanise them, and that’s done primarily through sex, smells and filth. Decoin deliberately contrasts the opulence traditionally present in Japanese literature of the era with the vibrant colours (and scents) of the real world. In Miyuki, he has created a foreign body, an element that doesn’t belong in Heian-kyō. Her very smell is offensive to the noble city dwellers – and yet:
Have you got it? Have you understood at last why the Office of Gardens and Ponds is going to give her – I know it seems foolish to you, but I am still the Director – two hundred rolls of silk taffeta, and even three hundred if I can lay my old hands on them? The answer, Atsuhito, is that Amakusa Miyuki smells of life, that she exhales life from all the orifices of her body. (p.254)
It’s this scent of freshness, of life, in a decaying society that excites Watanabe – but will it please the Emperor?
It all makes for a fascinating episode from the distant past seen through the eyes of ordinary folk (it reminded me in places of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, even if that book was far less restricted by historical fact.), with a striking contrast between the lives of the peasants and the upper classes. Decoin has obviously done a lot of research into the era, and that’s to be applauded, but at times it can be a little too much; there are a fair number of footnotes, not all of which are necessary (I assume that Cameron was simply passing on the writer’s observations). There’s a fair bit of info-dumping, too, the most obvious marker of a book written for people who know little about the era and setting.
The Office of Gardens and Ponds can’t quite escape being a tad didactic in its modern take on Japanese history. Nevertheless, it’s still an absorbing story by a writer with a passion for his topic (and far more respectful to the culture than a certain book I can think of). An intriguing story with a truly stunning cover, Decoin’s novel is the story of a clash of cultures, where each learns a little from the other – and to think it all begins with a smell…