I love "road books" -- novels whose plot mostly rest on a pair, or a troupe of travelers making their way down some famous road. Adventures abound, stories are shared, and the journey becomes way more important than the final destination. One of my favorites, which I have picked up again after many years, is the early19th century novel, Hizakurige by Ikku Jippensha. The title, a word for "journeying by foot" has been translated into the English version: Shank's Mare -- our own wonderful expression of the same. The book is now sadly out of print -- but it appears that there are available used copies of the book at an affordable price at Amazon. I have linked the title and the book cover to the listing on Amazon.
The novel is hilarious, bawdy, and outrageous as it follows the mis-adventures of two lower class workers, on a trip (ala shank's mare) along the great Tokaido Road between the capital city of Edo and the temple-filled Kyoto. Yaji and Kita manage to embroiled themselves in all kinds of lusty and disreputable doings as they rest at inns, and way stations along their way. They are not alone of course -- for the road is peopled with tradesmen, samurai, "lively dancing girls," itinerant actors, and scheming matrons -- all who are grist for the pair's irrepressible appetite for trouble. Who knew travel could be such an endless source of fun, trickery, one night stands, good food, bad booze, and in general absurd observations about life from two brash, madcap punsters looking for a good time.
In the illustration below, Kita and Yaji have stopped at Hokwo Temple to ogle at huge statue of Rushana in a sitting position. After making a few inappropriate comments about the august figure ("And he's got whayoumaycallems as big a badger") the pair discover that pilgrims are engaging in a fun game with the substantial beams used to support the roof. They squeeze themselves through cut openings near the bottom of the beams. Kita has no trouble -- but when the plumper Yaji wriggles in, he discovers he is quite stuck. What follows is a fast, comical dialog with every country pilgrim making outlandish and perilous suggestions as to how to get Yaji free.
The author Ikku Jippensha wrote the novel first as a serial and it was wildly popular throughout Japan in the early 19th century. Later, the whole series was published as a book that included wonderful illustrations -- some of which (like the one above)have been reproduced in the English edition published by Tuttle and translated very ably by Thomas Satchell (which is saying a lot as the puns themselves are a translator's nightmare -- look for the very helpful notes in the back.)
For the convenience of travelers, the Tokaido Road was serviced by 53 well known "way stations" where one could find inns, food, and shelter for animals. The well known Ukiyoe print maker, Hiroshige created around 55 separate prints of the 53 stations which are a fantastic visual record of the stations along the road. They are gorgeous -- some depicting the stations in winter, others in spring, some bustling with travelers, others more remote with only horses quietly grazing. I have included a selection down below, but happily you can see all of Hiroshige's Tokido Stations here. The photograph of the Tokaido Road above was take in 1865 by Felice Beato.
This is an odd moment. Three book ideas I have been working on lately have suddenly come into clarity as a single cloth -- not as a trilogy mind you, for each is different enough from the other -- but organically they seem to spring from the same desire to write about early, middle, and late life. I feel as though on any given day, I could write in all three manuscripts without missing a beat. Two at least are set in Italy (thank god the research here helps both novels). The third is contemporary fantasy, so familiar ground.
As I am now in my sixties, I think this sudden meta-thinking about the novels has a lot to do with my age. When studying African oral narratives, I learned that women storytellers in South Africa (and probably in every traditional society) told the same stories (with some changes in emphasis depending on the audience) to all different ages. When the audience was a mixture young to old, the tales were meant to be entertaining and to introduce the very young to the artistry of story-telling. Other times it was intended for a specific audience such as young women going through rites of initiation, and there the same stories acquired an instructional emphasis, the tales focusing on transformation to adulthood.
However, older women also performed those same stories privately to each other. All of them so well versed in a lifetime of living and of telling those tales. They knew these stories intimately, and in the variants of the tales they told each other, there was depth and nuance in the performances. It was an opportunity for them to reflect and to comment through mature and evocative performances of the tales on their past rites of passage; their lives as young women, as wives or co-wives, as mothers, and now as elders. One of the great Xhosa storytellers Nongenile Masithathu Zenani towards the end of her life performed three, one-hundred-hour epics. Each epic was performed over about 21 days --with Masithathu speaking for 5 to 6 hours each day. And like Scheherazade, each morning she picked up the tale where she left off the night before. She composed the epics from the threads of the oral narrative stories she had learned and told throughout her life, intertwined with a wealth of cultural details and a social history of the Xhosa. (I am still waiting to read one day the final translation of these three epics which were recorded and transcribed by Professor Emeritus Harold Scheub.)
As authors, we continue to reach back into the deep well of inherited stories -- the universality of rites of passage means every generation will want to hear them, read them, and connect to them. But unlike traditional society where the oral narratives and epics could be learned at the knee and then repeated (though different variants even within a culture suggest personal embellishment and emphasis in the telling), modern authors are always required to reinvent old tales and make them "fresh" -- sometimes with wonderful results and sometimes with stunningly bad ones. (I can never get over the dreadful Beowulf movies...Beowulf in Space, Beowulf with a Golden Stiletto-Heeled Monster mother).
So I guess this is the big challenge now for me. Trying to be faithful the tales, to take the time to reflect on how they have shaped and articulated different moments in my life, and yet, satisfy the craving to create something new, something "fresh" out of very old but venerable bones.
For more reading:
* Life Histories of African Women, edited by Patricia W. Romero which contains the autobiography of Nongenile Masithathu Zenani recorded, transcribed, and translated by Harlod Schueb.
**The Word and the World: Tales and Observations from the Xhosa Oral Tradtion. "A master storyteller of the Xhosa people of South Africa, Nongenile Masithathu Zenani gives us an unprecedented view of an oral society from within. Twenty-four of her complex and beautiful tales about birth, puberty, marriage, and work, as told to the renowned collector of African oral tradition, Harold Scheub, are gathered here. Accompanying the stories are Zenani’s detailed commentaries and analyses and Scheub’s striking photographs of her in performance. The combination of these historical and cultural observations with a richly symbolic collection of tales from a single traditional storyteller make The World and the Word a remarkable document."
Art: Edward Hopper: In the Barber Shop, 11:00AM, Summer in the City
Portuguese artist João Lemos sent me this gorgeous and entirely unexpected painting "La Stigmatisée" by French painter, Georges Moreau de Tours (1848-1901). And what a narrative it visually suggests -- rich and full of possibilities: a sensual image of a young woman, where both the dressings over the stigmata of her hands and her clothing are unraveling. She appears languorous, almost trance-like in her calm, while the onlookers are tense, agitated, a hand gripping the sleeve of another as though threatened by the spectacle of the reclining woman. There is just so much going here, all of it ambiguous: earthy and ethereal, masculine and feminine, still and agitated, acceptance and skepticism all at once.
Tucson's very old inner city neighborhood, The Barrio Viejo, has some of the best murals painted by residents over many years on the exterior of the houses. When my daughter and future husband were in town a number of years back, they took these wonderful photos of one of my favorite houses. I learned recently that new owners of the house built a substantial wall around these murals so they are no longer visible to the public -- and that portions of of it were removed as the owners renovated and up-scaled the house. I am grateful to have these photos of it in which to remember it.
And here's one of the hidden Christ, who appears at the bottom of an adjoining corrugated wall.
Midori Snyder is the author of nine novels for children and adults. She won the Mythopoeic Award for The Innamorati, a novel inspired by early Roman myth and the Italian "Commedia dell'Arte" tradition. more>>