‘The Tales of Ise’, translated by Peter MacMillan (Review)

After spending half of June looking at some Korean books, it only seems fair that July should see a slight change of scenery, so this month’s focus will shift to one of my other favourite literary countries, Japan.  I’ll be reviewing one book each week, with a mix of contemporary and classic works, and that kicks off today with a trip into the distant past.  You see, if you thought The Tale of Genji was as old as J-Lit gets, think again.  The real origins of the Japanese novel stretch even further back into the past, even if it’s not fiction as you might know it 🙂

The Tales of Ise is one of the most famous works in Japanese literature, and a major influence on most of the other seminal books that are still read today.  As translator Peter MacMillan comments in his introduction:

the Tales is one of the four most important works in Japanese classical literature, and knowledge of it is a prerequisite for understanding Japanese and cultural history.
p.xiii (Penguin Classics, 2016)

That’s quite a claim, but over the course of the book, which includes the detailed introduction and thorough interpretations that are actually longer than the original episodes themselves, MacMillan shows time and again the influence The Tales of Ise had on works such as The Tale of Genji, and the regard it is still held in today.

The work itself, consisting of 125 short episodes, is fairly easy to describe.  Each episode contains at least one short poem, accompanied by a brief foreword and, occasionally, a comment wrapping the episode up.  The majority of these pieces are less than a page in length, with the focus very much on the poem, so if that’s not your thing, it can become dull very quickly, particularly when you get a whole row of these shorter sections together.

However, there’s a lot more to The Tales of Ise than a collection of assorted poems.  In some ways, it’s actually a sort of proto-novel, with the episodes mainly focused on one ‘character’, the real-life ninth-century nobleman and poet Ariwara no Narihira.  Narihira wrote many of the poems himself, and one theory regarding the genesis of the Tales is that later writers took a short collection of his work and added to it, supplementing the original pieces with more episodes adorned with stories of his life and loves.  In this way, The Tales of Ise evolved almost organically over the course of a century until it became the book we know today.

The loves mentioned above are what drive the narrative, such as it is, and from the very first episode Narihira’s affairs are a constant preoccupation, with even a glimpse of a beautiful woman enough to set him off:

Long ago, a young man who had just come of age went hawking on his family estate by the village of Kasuga near the former capital of Nara.  Two beautiful sisters were living there, and the young man happened to catch a glimpse of them through a gap in the fence.  Discovering such beautiful ladies in this incongruous setting at the old abandoned capital filled him with excitement.  And he cut off a piece from the hem of his hunting robe, dashed off a poem on it, and had it sent in to them.
Episode 1, ‘Coming of Age’

This is followed by his first poem, and the episode acts as the starting point for his numerous amorous adventures, few of which end as innocently as this one.  As he grows older, our hero gets ever bolder, too, and in an age where monogamy wasn’t quite as important as in the modern era, there are many women only too willing to respond to his poetic advances.

While The Tales of Ise is far from the kind of novel modern readers are used to, that description isn’t as far-fetched as it might initially seem.  The core of the work has the reader following the thread of Narihira and his loves, and while there are many brief one-off liaisons, in several longer episodes, or series of episodes, an affair is described in more detail (and is consequently of more interest to the reader).

One of these longer sections is thought to have provided the book with its name, as it tells of an encounter between our lusty hero and the Priestess of Ise.  When the poet visits the shrine, one of the most famous in Japan, there’s an immediate spark, and when the inevitable happens, it is (unusually) the woman who first sends the traditional ‘morning-after’ poem:

Was it you who came to me,
or I who went to you?
I cannot tell.
Was I awake or sleeping?
Was it real, or just a dream?

The man, breaking into a flood of tears, replied:

In my chaotic heart of darkness
I also cannot tell
Come again tonight,
and let us decide
if it was a dream or real.
Episode 69, ‘Was it Real, or Just a Dream?’

Alas, more tears are to come.  The arrival of an unwelcome visitor at the shrine means the lovers’ plans are thwarted, and that night is to remain their only one together.  Still, at least the memories result in more poems.

Luckily, Narihira, the archetypal paragon of the courtly lover, is able to soothe his heart with other women.  Another of the more prominent affairs is his thwarted passion for a woman who is to be an Empress, a liaison that provides several episodes and poems.  However, for a generous man who is unsparing with his affections, every journey seems to bring a new dalliance, and his charms (perhaps the inpsiration for the Shining Genji) are rarely unwelcome.  In one memorable episode, entitled ‘Love at a Hundred’, he even makes the dreams of an ‘old’ (in reality, probably middle-aged) woman come true, and not just once:

Sighing, she recited a poem as she was preparing to go to bed.

Spreading my robe for one
upon the narrow mat,
I wonder: tonight,
must I sleep again
without my love?

Moved by her plight, Narihira spent the night with the woman again.
Episode 63, ‘Love at a Hundred’

How altruistic of him…

There are several themes highlighted in the Tales apart from Narihira’s love life.  Many episodes describe fickle women and the men who pine for them (a concept common in The Tale of Genji, and not an overly attractive one), while there are many examples of the love between friends.  Several episodes features friends exchanging letters, saddened by the other’s absence, or helping each other out when times are tough.  As the book nears its end, this becomes more common, and the affairs give way to memories of those that happened long ago, ushering in a more wistful tone.  Some of the final episodes feature Narihira lamenting the death of old loves, knowing his own can’t be far away.

The episodes are entertaining in themself, but it’s MacMillan’s wonderful notes that bring them to life.  The translator expertly unravels the secrets of the poetry, initiating the novice reader into the world of ‘pillow words’, ‘morning-after poems’ and ‘proxy compositions’, all that on top of his beautiful work on the poems.  The extras don’t stop there – there’s a foreword by the legendary Donald Keene that acts almost as a eulogy to MacMillan’s work, and for anyone with knowledge of Japanese, the original poems are romanised at the end, too.

Another impressive feature of the book is MacMillan’s explanation of how the text came about and the close connection between The Tales of Ise and another of the great poetry classics, the Kokinshū.  Many of Narihira’s poems were collected in the Kokinshū, but these, and many others, were then chosen and adapted to fit the structure of the Tales.  Interestingly, some poems had their meaning changed by the clever addition of the framing prefaces and comments, giving a very different impression to the original meaning.  In this sense The Tales of Ise is a work of fiction, in that Narihira the poet morphed into Narihira the character, with several of the episodes featuring encounters that never took place, and never could have, as the poet died before the other ‘characters’ were born…

The Tales of Ise certainly isn’t a book I’d recommend as an introduction to Japanese literature, but as MacMillan says, it’s essential reading for anyone with a real interest in unlocking the secrets of the country’s culture.  Whether it’s best classified as poetry or fiction is hard to say (and not that important, really), but at its best, it’s touching and affecting, and most readers will develop an affection for the good-natured Narihira.  In fact, when you reach the end, you may even shed a tear or two:

Long ago, the man became ill and sensed that his death was approaching.

I knew I’d have to walk on the path
we all must finally take,
but I had no idea
it would be tomorrow,
much less today.
Episode 125, ‘This Day’

This last poem, marking the end of ‘the man’s’ life, serves as a poignant farewell, and a fitting end to a true Japanese classic.

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