Wednesday, May 07, 2014

[Books] Book Look: Basho's Inward Road, by David Mazzotta

Interestingly, everything I have seriously considered writing over the past three or four years has been modifications or adaptations -- riffs, if you will -- of existing works or characters.  Basho's Inward Road happens to be the first, and only so far, that has come to fruition.

Matsuo Basho is generally acknowledged to be Japan's greatest poet.  Among Japanese scholars he is probably thought of as we in the West think of Shakespeare.  He lived in the later half of the 17th century and gained much fame in his lifetime and is considered to be the grand master of Haiku. He wrote the most instantly recognizable Haiku to anyone native to Japan:

an ancient pond
a frog jumps in
the splash of water

In English translation, this, like most Haiku seems almost childish in its simplicity, but in the original tongue it (I am told, since I do not speak Japanese) it carries tremendous subtlety.  One can imagine that the source word for “ancient" conveys a great deal of scene setting, and that the “splash of water" indicated a very specific sort of sound.

Towards the end of his life, he went on a journey to the far reaches of Japan along with this friend and student Sora.  He documented his travels into a series of vignettes and injected many of them with poems.  It was released posthumously as The Narrow Road to the Interior and it was a great success.  To this day travelers in Japan attempt to retrace his steps in homage.

I can't recall how I first stumbled on The Narrow Road.  I suspect I read it out of curiosity and an offhand interest in Haiku and the nature of translation in general. It is a short work, novella-length at most, and I ended up reading numerous translations which varied in tone from near-Victorian-baroque-epic to simple-and-blunt-Google-Translate.

The poetry was interesting, but the inherent problem of translation really diminishes its value.  You could argue that all poetry fails in translation and you would probably be right.  The same could be said about its value as a travelogue.  But here and there, we are given glimpses of Basho's personality and state of mind.  This is where the real interest lies for me.

Basho was a rapidly aging bachelor who spent his time travelling, unsure of his motives and purpose, alternating between mortal anxiety and joyful engagement with the world.  Who does that remind you of?  So I decided to rewrite it in my image.  I embellished and “re-imagined" Basho and his adventures under the assumption that the thoughts and feelings I recognized in him were equivalent to mine and so I could add legitimate depth to them. For example, I added humor and a strong sense irony -- things that were only hinted at in the original, but that I know to be essential in the make-up of any successful traveller.  I kicked up the moments of anxiety and worked hard to contrast them with moments of acceptance and resign.  I brought a more colloquial sense to the work and to the poetry.  I changed to arrangement but song remains the same.

This book has no hope of commercial success.  It's a personal project based on a 300 year old book from a distant land.  To call it esoteric is an understatement.   It's short -- barely a novella -- it could easily be read on a single plane ride or while you're waiting at the auto shop.  It's Kindle only so it's cheap -- $1.99.  If you're curious, you can get a copy for less than a latte.  My only wish is that it has some value for a few people -- that it connects in a small way.  If it does, please drop me a note