金曜日, 10月 22, 2004


        In Japan, autumn is considered the best season for reading. As we say "summer reading" in my country, they say "dokusho no aki" here. I don't know why it's any better for reading than any other season, but I'll go with it. I have a lot of time to read this week because it's exam week, and I have no exams to grade.
        Last night I found the legendary Sannomiya Public Library for the first time - usually I go to the Chuo library in Okurayama. Having heard that the Sannomiya library has a better selection of English books - and all in one place - I was happy to find it. All I wound up getting there was Great First Lines, edited by Celina Spiegel; a book of famous quotations, and a Torey Hayden book I hadn't read yet, Ghost Girl.
        From the book of great first lines (the memorable first sentences of famous novels, with the answers in the back so you can test your powers of literary trivia) - my favorites:

"Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show."

        -Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

"Incredible the first animal that dreamed of another animal."

        -Carlos Fuentes, Terra Nostra

"In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages."

        -Patrick Suskind, Perfume

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."

        - L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between

"I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life."

        -James Baldwin, Giovanni's Room

"I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as "Claudius the Idiot", or "That Claudius", or "Claudius the Stammerer", or "Clau-Clau-Claudius" or at best as "Poor Uncle Claudius", am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the "golden predicament" from which I have never since become disentangled."

        -Robert Graves, I, Claudius

        I found several books I wanted to read after reading their first lines. I tried searching for them on the library homepage first, but having no luck, I ordered three books from amazon.co.jp, two of which because I liked their first lines. I ordered I, Claudius and Giovanni's Room, and yet another Torey Hayden book, Beautiful Child.
        The "Perfume" book looked interesting too, but I think I'll wait and read it later. I could get it slightly cheaper (or at the library?) if I read it in Japanese. Since it's a translation anyway, not originally in English, I might attempt it. I learned a long time ago that I don't enjoy much reading Japanese translations of English books, but if it's a translation from German, Japanese should be just as good as English.
        Now for my reading in Japanese. I'm trying to get through a chapter a day of Seirei no Moribito, but it's more difficult to read than I expected. I do like it though. Here is a summary of the chapters I've read so far:

Prologue: The heroine, Balsa, a 30-year old female bodyguard, is walking along a bridge minding her own business when she sees a child falling from a royal procession, which is going by on another bridge. The procession is the household of the second wife of the emperor, and the child is thrown off when the ox pulling their carts begin rioting. She acts quickly and saves the child.

Sample obscure word appearing in this chapter: いしづき On an umbrella, spear, staff, or mushroom, this is the small pointy bit that touches the ground.

Chapter 1: Expecting a mere monetary award, Balsa is startled to find herself treated to an elegant feast to thank her for saving the child's life. The child is the 10-year old second son of the emperor. In this culture, it is not seemly for a commoner like Balsa to look in the face of royalty, so her hostess, the prince's mother, does not appear. However, during the meal, her chief retainer entreats Balsa to stay the night in the palace. Thinking it strange, Balsa complies. There is a detailed description of the marvelous onsen bath she takes in the palace (a bit of Japanese culture creeping into this story about a supposedly imaginary kingdom...)
        In the middle of the night, Balsa is awakened by none other than...the empress and the prince! The empress tells Balsa the strange story of a mysterious power that has possessed the boy, urging Balsa to take him under her protection. It seems that the boy's life is in danger, and his own father is trying to kill him! If news leaked out to the people that a spirit (suspected to be a legendary water spirit from the foundation myths of this country) had taken up residence in the boy, the people would lose faith in the royal family and revolt. The empress loves her son, however, and touchingly remarks that she would far rather he be safe, even if she should never see him again, than to have to look upon his dead face. She reveals that the fall from the bridge was no accident. Another attempt was made on his life not long ago, an accident in the bath, but he survived. The reason the boy is thought to be possessed is that he behaves strangely in his sleep. When he is possessed, he glows with a strange light, and the noise from the outside world stops. She has consulted two experts on magical phenomena about him, but she cannot openly allow an exorcism to be performed or word would leak out to the commoners that the royal family had not vanquished the water spirit hundreds of years ago.
        Balsa reluctantly takes charge of the boy, although she thinks protecting him is likely to cost her her life.
        One thing that amuses me about this book is that it contains the place names 二ノ宮 and 三ノ宮. It's funny to me that a fantasy book would have the place name Sannomiya in it, the name of a place I go to all the time in real life. I know the real meaning though is something like "second palace" and "third palace," so I shouldn't make too much of the coincidence.
        Upon undertaking the mission, Balsa suggests that the second empress set fire to the second palace, making it seem as though her son set the fire in his sleep and perished in the blaze.

Uncommon words found in this chapter:
つかのま soon
生業 (なりわい)an old word for 職業
跡目 (あとめ) succession
歯を食いしばる gritting your teeth - both the empress and the small boy are always doing this.
夏至 (げし) summer solstice

        Since this book has furigana over all the kanji, I have gotten some knowing remarks from people assuming that I am reading it for that reason, but much of the vocabulary is so obscure and so far removed from my everyday life that the furigana does not really help me understand it. I still need to look up a ton of words every chapter.

Chapter 2

        This chapter starts with a new character, Shuga, an astrologer, as he watches the smoke from the second palace burning. Having watched the stars all night, he is suspicious about the fire and resolves to go consult his superior, the highest ranking astrologer in the land. There is then a digression about the history of the kingdom (Shin Yogo Kokoku), set forth in order to inform the reader "why astrologers are so important to this kingdom." Actually, the history lesson is not as boring as I feared it would be. The author's university major was cultural anthropology, specializing in the Australian Aborigines. She used some of her knowledge in this area, I think, to enrich the history of her fictional kingdom. Shin Yogo Kokoku also has aborigines, the "Yakuu" people, and from their legends comes the idea of a water spirit that takes the spirit of a child once every hundred years. The founders of the current regime supposedly vanquished this spirit two hundred years ago, but we are left to believe that the creature was never really destroyed.
        Shuga pays a visit to the grand high astrologer, who favors his observations with a promotion to the status of favored disciple, over his rival who is older than him. You can imagine the levels of keigo here, as well as in the conversation in the previous chapter between the empress and the commoner Balsa. After Shuga takes the irreversible step towards becoming a grand high astrologer himself, it is revealed to him that there is a "dark face" to the emperor's work that he never before suspected. Basically, the emperor and grand high astrologer have assassins at their command, whom they call "Hunters" (狩人 - かりゅうど), and they use them to carry out a lot of dirty business. Both Shuga and his master think that the young emperor did not perish in the flames, and they guess at the strategy plotted by his mother, to send him to safety in the company of the bodyguard who saved his life. They even know Balsa's name and reputation. The Hunters are deployed to find her and kill her, and capture the prince.  

Chapter 3

        Balsa escapes with the prince, whose name is Chagumu. She tells him that as a prince of the blood, he died in that fire; in his new life he must behave as an ordinary boy. He "grits his teeth" and accepts this fact. She tells him that if things go well, he might someday see his mother again.
        After walking most of the night, they arrive at a town where Balsa seeks shelter from a boy and a girl living in a handmade shelter under a bridge. Balsa saved the children in the past from violent ruffians, so they are eager to help her. She gives them some money in exchange for sheltering her and Chagumu for the day and doing some shopping for them. The boy, Tohya, is happy to do this. It's his normal job anyway, since he earns his living as an errand boy. Since it is not uncommon for him to do other people's shopping as part of his job, it will not rouse suspicion. Balsa knows it is likely that she is being followed. Balsa tells the children a little of her task, without telling them the whole story, or the identity of the boy. She and Chagumu fall asleep. Chagumu is possessed by the spirit while he sleeps, a frightening episode for Balsa. Tohya and the girl come back later with all the supplies and food. Here is the second Japanese culture thing I think is funny in the book so far. It's the first time I've read a fantasy book where people buy bento lunches and eat them with chopsticks. Yum yum, there is a lot of description of the yummy rice and fish bentos they eat in this chapter. To give credit to the author's powers of imagination they are not exactly like Japanese box lunch bentos. The sauce on the fish sounds a little different from what you could buy any day at the train station. Still...

Chapter 4 - This is the chapter I must read today. It's going to be one of those books where the point of view changes every chapter, so it's going to be a bit difficult to get into the shoes of each new character at first. The story I'm most interested in, of course, is Balsa and Chagumu. That's the main story. What is the creature possessing Chagumu? My student who recommended the series to me told me that her favorite character is Chagumu. She said she has Chagumu's picture on her keitai. Thus far, Chagumu has not done much but "grit his teeth" and bear the fact that he's being separated from the only life he has ever known, but because of my student's comment "He is so cool!" I think he must eventually do something more than this. So I'm curious about what kind of person Chagumu will turn out to be. I also like Balsa. What a coincidence, I'm turning 30 soon, and little did I expect to find a 30-year old main character in a children's book! She's very cool to me - she has a fearsome reputation as a fighter with her "short spear" (短槍).
        Another thing I like about this series is the attractive and intriguing illustrations. They are more detailed than the usual manga style, so much so that they remind me of some of my favorite illustrations in books I read in childhood --C.S. Lewis' and Zilpha Keatley Snyder's books had expressive illustrations like these. A cryptic motif in some of the pictures arouses my curiousity - namely, a recurring emblem of a young face or hand with an aged one. This must relate to some interesting theme about the aging cycle, I think. So far there has been no clue what it might mean.
        Seirei no Moribito won the following children's literature awards: