October 8, 2011


Filed under: books, Japan — theresaurus @ 11:34 am

From Lemon by Kajii Motojiro, translated by Robert Ulmer:

“Decrepit neighborhoods were the landscapes I favored and within them it was not the impersonal main roads that I found more congenial but the shabby back alleys with their grimy laundry hanging out to dry and paths of scattered trash. Peeking in the windows of the squalid rooms that faced the alleyways gave me pleasure as well.

“When I was in better shape, I loved to spend time in department stores like the Maruzen, with its shelves filled with imported goods. Red and yellow bottles of eau-de-Cologne and eau-de-quinine. Amber and jade-colored perfume flasks of fanciful cut glass in embossed rococo patterns. Pipes and pocket-knives, soaps and tobacco. After an hour of careful scrutiny, I would extravagantly purchase a single pencil of the finest quality. Now, however, Maruzen had become an oppressive, stifling place.

“Then I wandered down Teramachi to Nijo Avenue, finally coming to a halt in front of a greengrocer’s. … The greengrocer’s was especially beautiful at night. … Its awning jutted out like the visor of of a cap pulled down over the eyes. … Viewed from the street, where the naked bulbs sent spirals of light burrowing into my eyes, or from the second-floor window of the coffee-shop across the way, there were few other sights of Teramachi that inspired me as this one did. … This particular day, I took the unusual step of making a purchase there. For something was on sale — lemons. … Time and again, I brought the fruit up to my nose to capture its scent.

“How I arrived there I do not know, but suddenly I realized I was standing in front of the Maruzen department store. … Yet, for some reason, the sense of well-being that had filled my heart began to vanish the moment I stepped inside. The rows of perfume and tobacco left me cold. … I made my way to the art-books section. … As if bewitched, I compulsively pulled down book after book, gave each a quick glance, then moved on to the next without returning even one to the shelf. … The last book I chose was one of my favorites, a huge gold-colored collection of the work of Ingres. … In the past, I had leisurely leafed through books such as these, savoring the strange contrast between their beautiful illustrations and the dull surroundings. Why did they no longer attract me?

“With a start I recalled the lemon tucked in the sleeve of my kimono. If I were to try placing it atop of this jumbled collection of colors, what then? … I randomly stacked the books in a tower, roughly dismantled it, then threw it together again. … Controlling the trembling in my heart, I carefully placed the lemon upon the castle’s peak. … Amid the musty air of Maruzen, this spot alone seemed to possess a strange tension. I stood there for awhile, just gazing at the tower.

“A ticklish feeling came over me. ‘Should I? Why not!’ I briskly left the building.”

I used to love Maruzen, the ambiance, its Meiji-Taisho foreign exoticism. The fountain pens, Burberry raincoats and umbrellas, wonderful collection of art and photography books, the smell of coffee and hayashi beef from the coffee shop. I haven’t been there for a long time, it’s not fun anymore. The foreign language section shrinks with every passing year, prices don’t reflect the actual exchange rate. You need to take out a loan to buy a magazine. The last time I was there I looked at the prices and briskly left the building.

October 6, 2011

Travels of a purple tramp

Filed under: books, Japan — theresaurus @ 9:23 am

I love Osamu Dazai, too bad he was such a nut. He had a keen sense of the ridiculous.

Return to Tsugaru, Travels of a Purple Tramp, Reminiscences by Osamu Dazai (translated by James Westerhoven):

“Grown-ups are lonely people. Even if we love each other, we must be careful not to show it publicly. And why all this caution? The answer is simple: because people are too often betrayed and put to public shame. The discovery that you cannot trust people is the first lesson young people learn as they grow up into adults. Adults are adolescents who have been betrayed.

“Before setting out for Tsugaru, I had made one secret resolution, and that was to stop caring about food. … Maybe I am just old-fashioned, for though it strikes me as quite funny, I love that sort of foolish, almost masochistic sham indifference epitomized by the samurai with an empty stomach picking his teeth as if he had just eaten. … My self-imposed rule to stop caring about food contained an escape clause for crab. I love crab. I don’t know why, but I do. Crab, shrimp, squilla, I like only light fare. And then there’s another thing I’m very fond of, and that’s alcohol. Ah! No sooner are we on the subject of eating and drinking than the apostle of love and truth, who was supposed not to give a damn about such things, reveals a glimpse of the inborn glutton.

“From the moment he entered, Mr. S. never once stopped bombarding his wife with orders. … Dried cod is cod (only big ones are used) that has been frozen and dried in a snowstorm. … Mr. S had five or six or them hanging from the beams of his veranda, and, staggering to his feet, he snatched off two or three, pounded them with indiscriminate hammerblows, hurt his left thumb, toppled over, and then crawled around on his knees to fill everyone’s glass with cider. … As for those cried of ‘Eggs in bean paste! Eggs in bean paste!’ … beef stew and chicken stew are called beef kayaki and chicken kayaki. I suppose in the dialect this is the pronunciation of kaiyaki, shell-fried. The custom appears to have died out, but when I was a child the people here in Tsugaru used to cook meat in big scallop shells. They were convinced, it seems, that the shell created a broth. I wonder whether we did not perhaps inherit this custom from our Ainu predecessors. … Kayaki of eggs in bean paste is a simple dish prepared in a clam shell: you sprinkle dried bonito shavings onto the bean paste, cook it, and then add an egg. … The next day a friend visited Mr. S. as he sat drinking sake, still mortified, and asked him jokingly, ‘Well, did your wife give you an earful afterward?’ ‘No, not yet,’ answered Mr. S., coy as a maiden. He knew he had it coming.

“I pulled the wrapped-up fish out of my rucksack and gave it to the maid. ‘This is a sea bream. Broil it as it is, please, and then bring it back here.’ The maid did not look very bright. … Like me, N. seemed to have his misgivings about the maid. He called her back and explained once more. ‘Broil it as it is. There are three of us, but that doesn’t mean you have to cut it into three pieces.’ … N.’s instructions that it did not have to be cut into three identically sized pieces had produced an idiotic result: on an ordinary, off-white dish lay — without head, tail, or bones — five slices of broiled bream. … I expect my readers understand that I hadn’t bought such a big bream just because I wanted to eat it. I had wanted to admire it as it lay served on a big dish, broiled in its original shape. … I had wanted to feel that flow of luxury, sipping my sake and looking at the fish. … Looking at the five slices of grilled fish (this was no longer sea bream, merely grilled fish) piled unimaginatively on the dish, I felt like crying. … Where were the head and the bones now? The big, splendid head — perhaps they had thrown it away!N. chuckled. ‘But don’t you see the joke? When you tell them to cut something into three pieces, they go and cut it into five. They’re comedians, these people, such comedians. Well, cheers, cheers, cheers!'”

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