War and Pillows

Tsubaki

By X. I. Selene

A review of Tsubaki by Aki Shimizaki

Published on October 1, 2000

Tsubaki
Aki Shimizaki
Translated by Fred A. Reed

Talonbooks
$15.95
paperback
128pp
0-88922-421-8

In her first novel, Aki Shimazaki articulates a loss taking place today: the deaths of World War II’s last witnesses. However, the reluctance of Shimazaki’s central character, Akiko K., to disclose her experiences of the atomic bomb blast at Nagasaki suggests to her daughter, Namiko, and grandson the doubled nature of history’s shocks, shocks which fold their tellers in premature silence even before they have departed. Shimazaki’s point of inspiration is to hide within this complex fabric another reason for Akiko’s reticence, thus opening the potential for irony and unfolding questions surrounding victimhood and aggression, individual and mass-scale devastation.

The novel flourishes in a series of letters which Akiko has written to Namiko, who receives them after her mother’s death. The dialogue and descriptions show concentration, adequately revealing a society which has been forced to a fever-pitch. Regrettably, the narrative frame does not receive equal attention. Had a problematic early flashback, heavy with expository information, been lightened with the same deft descriptive touch, and had the conclusion been further developed, then past and present would have met gracefully and the narrative frame would have amounted to more than a utilitarian object for presenting the engaging story-in-letters.

In spring 1995, Dr. Leonard Walker, archeologist and specialist in ancient Japanese history, was summoned to a red Subaru outside Hosan-ji Station on Ikomo Mountain. It was there that the supreme discovery of the Nara Period (A.D. 710-784) passed from its conscientious inheritor to one persevering ambassador of scholarship. The Pillow Book of Lady Kasa now shines beside The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon and The Tale of Genji, illuminating an ancient Japan which may otherwise have been known to us only nebulously.

This national treasure is now available in Dr. Walker’s limpid translation, for which he supplies an informative introduction. In only 22 pages, he outlines the history of the Imperial city of Nara, the pillow book as a literary form, and some proper archeological techniques of recovery and preservation. Even though the author acknowledges the aid of seminal texts such as Tsuboi and Tanaka’s The Historic City of Nara: An Archeological Approach and Ivan Morris’ The World of Shining Princes, certain phrases ought to have been quoted and credited, not altered superficially in their wording. While Dr. Walker’s phrasings often improve upon unwieldy academic sentences, he could face serious allegations of plagiarism.

He could, that is, if he existed, and if The Pillow Book of Lady Kasa were not a work of fiction created by Barrie Sherwood (b. 1971). The lifted sentences in The Pillow Book of Lady Kasa are not controversial, but contribute to the overall uncanny impression of history contaminated by the imagination, and of literature contaminated by scholarship. Sherwood intersperses unbelievable facts with fantastic fabrications, and slips in both authentic and interpolated poems so hilariously redundant that the entire book is perfumed with a scent redolent of Sarah Binks.

Unlike The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, this pillow book is not at all “desultory and confusing” (as Ivan Morris and ‘Leonard Walker’ put it). The arrival of a new lady-in-waiting, Lady Koto, and the departure of the Naran Don Juan, Otomo Yakomochi, provide something of a plot. Yes, those famous, splendidly random lists of minutiae do appear here in incapacitatingly funny parody, but Lady Kasa’s pillow book is closer to a chronological diary than Sei Shonagon’s.

The Pillow Book of Lady Kasa taps the wish to recover extraordinary treasures hiding under the surface of the ordinary. It pursues, to a certain extent, the same desires for splendour and charm that the original pillow book seeks, yet services a critique of false exoticism with interest and humour. This is a treasure of a very peculiar order. mRb

X. I. Selene is a Montreal writer.

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