Friday, 15 February 2019

Book Review: The Wild Geese by Mori Ōgai, the world would be a rather hostile place to live in without the written and unwritten rules that determine more or less strictly our behaviour towards each other. Society is firmly based on these codes of conduct although only their most essential parts are universal like the canon laid down in maybe seven of the Ten Commandments in the Christian Bible. Other social norms are inseparably connected to a more or less confined cultural sphere. In the Japanese classic The Wild Geese by Mori Ōgai the paths of medical student Okada and a moneylender’s beautiful young concubine called Otama cross in Tōkyo in 1880, but the unwritten rules of society prevent them from becoming more than just a regular passer-by and the resident of a house who know each other only from sight. However, as time advances their glances and greetings begin to mean more than they outwardly express…
Mori Ōgai (森鴎外) was born Mori Rintarō (森林太郎) in Tsuwano, Iwami Province (today: Shimane Prefecture), Japan, in February 1862. Following family tradition, he studied medicine in Tōkyo and then joined the medical corps of the Imperial Japanese Army that sent him to Germany for four years of further medical studies at different universities. Back in Japan, he quickly climbed army hierarchy and founded a medical as well as a literary journal. After having published a volume of poetry in 1889, he wrote some western-style short stories like The Dancing Girl (舞姫: 1890) and translated the works of important authors from German into Japanese. Only as from 1902 he wrote more own fiction, most importantly the novels Vita sexualis (ヰタ・セクスアリス: 1909), which was banned before long, and The Wild Geese (: 1911-13). He also wrote historical fiction like 山椒大夫 (1915; tr. Sanshō the Steward) or 高瀬舟 (1916; tr. The Boat on the Takase River) and the biographies of physicians of the Edo period. Mori Ōgai died in Tōkyo, Japan, in July 1922.

After nearly thirty-five years a physician writes down the story of The Wild Geese that took place in Tōkyo in the early 1880s. In the boarding house near the Iron Gate of medical school where he lived during his student days, he made friends with his always correct fellow Okada from the adjacent room. One night, on his way home from another of his customary long walks, Okada saw a shy young woman enter the house beside the sewing school in Muenzaka that had long caught his attention for its tidiness and loneliness. From then on Okada made it his habit to pass by the house and to look out for the face of the woman behind the window whose name he didn’t even know. They exchanged furtive glances, then smiles and eventually mute greetings, but they had no way of getting formally acquainted. The beautiful woman was Otama and although only in her late teens she had agreed to be the kept woman of middle-aged Suezo to allow her widowed father to retire from his ambulant business as a candy maker that was getting too much for the aging man. To Otama’s mortification, she soon learnt that the always kind and generous man to whom she had sold herself was an ill-famed and tight-fisted usurper who had started as a money-lending janitor in a student dormitory. Moreover, she was aware that to his wife he kept lying about her despite the gossip all around, and yet, she was quite resigned to her fate. Ever since Okada had killed a snake that had crawled into a birdcage hanging in her window, she longed, however, to talk to the young man to thank him. The moment for it seemed to have come, when Suezo left town on business one day…

The novella titled The Wild Geese is the ostensibly true story of protagonists known in person to the narrating I who tells it from his perspective as nameless, but well informed and yet unconcerned observer or listener respectively. As such it made me think of a Japanese novella from the late 1920s starting from a similar premise, namely of Quicksand by Tanizaki Jun’ichiro (»»» read my review). The plot revolving around the budding, though eventually thwarted love between a medical student and the kept woman of a less respectable man in Japan of the late nineteenth century feels so perfectly authentic that in part it may well have been inspired by reality, maybe even the author’s own experience. The diversity and psychological depth of the protagonists themselves along with all other characters peopling the story certainly add to the novella’s credibility. The tone of the narration is calm and unsentimental from beginning to end also thanks to many atmospheric descriptions of scenery. Even in the German translation that I read, the strong imagery in simple as well as precise language reminded me of traditional haiku although the author skilfully, i.e. elegantly merged Eastern sense of beauty with western literary style.

Although more than a hundred years old, The Wild Geese by Mori Ōgai is a charming little read that I enjoyed immensely, not least because it’s a rather unusual love story without the sudden complications and emotions running high typical of the romance genre. Admittedly, the slim volume doesn’t offer much action apart from the scene with the snake in the birdcage and the rather unexpected finale to which the novella owes its title, but all the walks through old Tōkyo, the furtive looks of the protagonists and the everyday activities of the characters combine to a very coherent portrait of a society that was still firmly rooted in ancient Japanese tradition while it already strove hard to catch up with modern civilisation in America and Europe. The novella itself, too, mirrors the changes on the literary level… and in a convincing way, which is why I gladly recommend it.

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