A temple with exits and entrances | Daily News


A temple with exits and entrances

Quite a number of Japanese novels have been translated into English over the years. The extent to which the response depicts that there is a niche termed Japanese narratives. A special reference could be made to award-winning Japanese writers such as Yukio Mishima, Junichiro Tanizaki, Natsume Soseki, Akira Kurosawa and Yasunari Kawabata.

It remains to be said, however, that many more outstanding Japanese writers have reached the English reading world despite the wide-availability.

Fumio Niwa is one. His novel comes closer to me as the contents and the mode of expression bear familiarity to the Oriental narratology. The novel is titled The Buddha Tree. The English translation has been accepted in the World Translation Series of Contemporary Works jointly sponsored by the International PEN Club and UNESCO. I came across the work which was reprinted in the 1970s.

The central experience is a broad-based religious spree that envelops the character of a Buddhist priest. He is depicted more like a worldly being who enjoys the sensory pleasures while offering certain pious pseudo-advice to his parishioners or those who come to pay homage to the temple where he resides. The reader comes to know, as the narrative unfolds, that this person is unchallengeable in certain ways. He has a clandestine relationship with his mother in law, Mineyo, for many years. Gradually as a number of events unfold, his wife discovers this relationship.

The inevitable turning point is that she leaves him. As he discovers the plight of his wife, he is made to undergo a mental struggle sandwiched between the sensory and the spiritual life. The inner struggle is written in a way that at times it surpasses the mere barriers of monologue and the stream of consciousness.

Niwa creates tender dramatic situations to picturise the plight of a man torn between sensually and his own teachings drawn from the Buddhist doctrine. As time goes on, he gets further entangled in the web of sensuality falling in love with a mistress of a local merchant named Tomoko. The novelist skilfully portrays not only the inner conflict in Shoshe but also the minds and behaviour of those who are near and dear to him.

On creative impulse, the writer makes use of quite a number of parables, dictums, anecdotes and mini poems like Haiku and Tanka so as for the reader grips the central theme of duality in one’s life with reference to community trends of the Japanese countryside.

The reader needs to be relaxed and patient to read this slow-moving narrative. A discerning reader may observe that Niwa has a tendency to see the events in an overwrought manner. The English translator, Kenneth Strong, notes that Niwa’s somewhat slow-moving and discursive style is characteristic of much Japanese writing.

The Buddha Tree is portrayed as a symbol of reference to the Indian tree under which Prince Siddhartha gained the supreme state of Nibbana. This is known as Enlightenment. This too becomes the symbol of great wisdom. The writer makes reference to the obligation of the clergy in serving the masses who rally round the temple in order to pay the homage.

Though we come across the minor characters, the narrative revolves around a few. They include Mineyo, the widow of the late priest of the temple. Soshu is the adopted son of Mineyo, the priest about whom quite a lot is expressed intimately. Then comes Reneko, the wife of Soshu and Ryokun, the son of Soshu and Renuko

Then the reader comes across other characters such as maids, factory workers, sons and daughters of business magnates devoted to various aspects. They seek blessings from the temple. They are shown attached to as well as detached from certain domestic bonds and barriers. Running to 36 chapters, the narrative was initially printed in a newspaper in instalments. The reader feels the need for the continuity from one episode to another.

The novel was produced first in 53 instalments. Niwa gained a reputation for writing serialised narratives. As a creative writer, Niwa does not pay more attention to the plot structure. Instead, he creates situations where a surprise or amazement comes to light.

In most situations, Niwa emphasises the individual behaviour regarding the religious faiths that tends overshadow the reality around one’s life. This is sensitively captured in Soshu and his wife, Renko, even though they disengage with each other on serious matters. Much action in the narrative takes place in the temple premises known by the term Butsoji. It is like a stage where actors come and go with physical and verbal gestures.

One sensitive situation that happens in the narrative is the moment where Soshu is made to listen to a young girl singing a song. It goes as follows:

Empty are a man’s words of love

Yet of parting’s sweet sadness

How can I be weary

Even in dreams, from a sorrowing heart

From a longing unguessed

A river of tears

Brief shadow of wings on the water

As a lone bird flies

At evening bell.

The songs, poems and sayings envelop the narrative. The reader can observe the inner meanings that fall apart. As a reader, I feel that some of the passages could be read aloud so as to achieve sensitivity in the central mode of communication. The poetic vision is the high point of illumination in the entire work.

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