Across the Nightingale Floor

I found Across the Nightingale Floor by accident. Browsing through my local bookstore, I picked up another book in the same series and opened it because Ursula K. Le Guin had given the book a blurb. Rather than get that book, I redirected to read this one because it was the first in the series, totally oblivious to who Lian Hearn was or really knowing anything about the series. I was not disappointed.

Across the Nightingale Floor is a straightforward fantasy in the tradition modeled after Medieval Romances of brave warriors and doomed love, set in an alternate medieval Japan.

Takeo, as he comes to be known, was raised among the Hidden, a secretive sect of pacifists, until his village of Mino is attacked by men of Tohan. Takeo escapes with the aid of a stranger who turns out to be Lord Otori Shigeru. This fortunate encounter catapults Takeo into a world of clan politics. Tohan recently came to prominence after defeating the Otori and killing Shigeru’s father and brother. Recognizing in Takeo something of the Tribe, a sect of assassins, Shigeru adopts him, raises him, and makes plans to use him to seek revenge.

The second half of the romance comes from Kaede, the heir Shirakawa family and close relative of another powerful family headed by Lady Murayama. In short, through Kaede lays a potential path to power, and since the rise of Tohan when she was a child, Kaede has been a hostage at Noguchi castle. Now that she has reached marriageable age, her captors have decided that it is time she marry and propose to use her as a pawn to undermine the last opposition to Tohan rule: brimming discontent centered on Otori Shigeru.

Across the Nightingale Floor does not have a complicated plot. It is filled with strong motivations, dramatic gestures, and two simple arcs that are gradually brought closer together with just enough action to propel the story. Around the teenagers at the heart of the story the motivations and plots are more complex in that this is a world of competing political motivations, but the sweeps are no less dramatic and the agendas nuanced only marginally by the weight of personal histories. Hearn hints at a more complex story and throws in a few twists along the way, but ultimately chooses not to elaborate.

This is not to say that Across the Nightingale Floor isn’t well-crafted. It is a lush story with significant research into the Sengoku period in Japan and a plot that I found propulsive. But it is also a story that feels like it belongs in an older fantasy or epic tradition, one that is more like a medieval Romance.

Using these traditions leads to certain consequences on top of reducing certain characters to their broad motivations. Older fantasy has a flat-map problem where anything that exists off the world-map might as well not exist. Narnia is literally flat, but elsewhere the flatness is implied, often with an authorial choice not to engage with the possibility of an interconnected world. Sometimes the plot doesn’t demand this engagement, but the consequences still exist.

Hearn offers slight nods to a wider world, with occasional references to a land over the sea that could be an approximation of China, but stops short of engaging with the wider consequences of the historical setting. For instance the Sengoku period was a period when Portuguese merchants conducted a brisk trade with Japan and the persecution of the Hidden strongly resembled the persecution of Christians during the period of the Tokugawa shogunate. Similarly, in one scene characters eat a meal featuring maize, a new world crop that came to Japan in the 16th century and therefore would have been rather new. None of these points were critical to the plot, but struck me as limits of projecting a story into a world modeled on a historical time and place without fully engaging with that context.

There was one final question that stuck with me as I read Across the Nightingale Floor. I picked it up without looking into Lian Hearn, and only belatedly learned that she had no connection to Japan other than having fallen in love with the country after visiting. Nevertheless, Hearn clearly did her research and avoids orientalist tropes, which put me at ease regarding cultural appropriation.

In sum, I enjoyed Across the Nightingale Floor as a perfectly pleasant, easy read, but many of the same features that made it enjoyable and the reasons I’m in no hurry to read any of the other books in the series. Perhaps on a beach (or a grassy equivalent) this summer I’ll be ready to pick up the second, but in the meantime I don’t really need another epic featuring a functional but flattened setting and a young male protagonist on the cusp of learning the ways in which he is special.


It is the end of the semester here in central Missouri and while that means I’ve had a bit more time to read, I’ve also been falling behind on writing (both her and elsewhere). I recently finished Jenny Erpenbeck’s excellent Go, Went, Gone, a novel about immigration to western countries, and am now about halfway finished with David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, a history of the Osage murders in the 1920s and the creation of the FBI.

Tun-Huang – Yasushi Inoue

What can set in motion a chain of events that will, in hundreds of years, lead to a remarkable archeological find? More concretely, what can set in motion events that will cause a man to bury hundreds of pages of buddhist scripture in isolated caves?

This is the question that Yasushi Inoue answers with his work of historical imagination, Tun-Huang, so named for the caves where the monk Chao Hsing-te will end up burying the scrolls. The story opens hundreds of miles away. Hsing-te comes from a bureaucratic family and studied for years to take the civil service exam except, after cruising through the first two rounds of testing, he falls asleep in the waiting area and sleeps through the final round of testing. Faced with the prospect of waiting years for the next round of testing and being devastated, Hsing-te wanders through the market and chances into a merchant selling a Hsi-Hsia woman, one body part at a time. Moved by the spectacle, Hsing-te her freedom, and then sets out to see her homeland. Along the way he becomes a warrior, falls in love with a princess, becomes associated with a dangerous and violent merchant and a Hsing-te officer of Chinese origin with a near-suicidal mania for throwing himself into battle. All of these events are formative, but, ultimately, the most important development is that Hsing-te converts to Buddhism and dedicates his living to saving the documents before the flames of war consume them.

Tun-Huang is a book on which I am torn. The text forms the backbone of an epic story, and Inoue mimics the form of historical narrative from a detached vantage point. It is an epic in two hundred pages. Hsing-te’s transition is a worthy subject, and the Chinese soldier Wang Li, the merchant Kuang, and the Uigher princess are viable, if somewhat shallow, supporting characters. The book moves, and I agree with one review I read that compares the story to the form and style to that of the movie Western, but I still found myself dissatisfied. My problem was the sense of predestination in that, while not in form, the story is built to start with the end and then builds back the events that led up to it. As a result, individual scenes were moving–the sacrifice of the princess, the greedy merchant pawing through the ground for riches–but in part because I found the characters hard to connect with, I suspect because of the style, the overall the story lacked sufficient drama for my taste.

Next up I am currently reading Klaus Mann’s Mephisto about actors and theater in Nazi Germany and The Struggle for Sea Power, a global naval history of the American Revolution.

The Samurai’s Garden – Gail Tsukiyama

Stephen, a Chinese man from Hong Kong, has tuberculosis and so his family has sent him to join his father in Japan to get away from the heat and dampness. From Kobe, he travels to the small, seaside resort town of Tarumi where his grandfather has a cabin. The slow pace of life in the small town is an adjustment from the bustling city, but the mountain air and the sea are healthful. However, while Stephen adjusts to life with the cabin caretaker, Matsu, the world seems to be falling apart outside of his bubble. The year is 1937 and the imperial Japanese army is advancing into southern China.

The Samurai’s Garden fundamentally balances these two contradictory forces. On the one side there is the failing relationship between Stephen’s parents, the horrors of the Japanese campaign in China, and the associated tensions, such as the refugee crisis in Hong Kong, the lack of young men in Tarumi, and the hostility felt by some Japanese against the wealthy Chinese interloper. On the other, there is the tranquility of the garden, the shrine, and how Matsu and his friend Sachi adopt Stephen as though he is their own child.

The entirety of the story unfolds in the course of the more than a year Stephen stays in Tarumi, and the reader only meets his friends, mother and sister through their letters and his memories. Other than brief visits with Stephen’s father, on whom his opinion changes radically, the story mostly focuses on the four Japanese people he meets in Tarumi: the young girl Keiko and four older folks who have a long history together, Matsu the caretaker, Kenzo the owner of the tea house, and Sachi the leper, who they both love. Stephen is the focal point, but his relationship with Matsu and later Sachi is more important than the one with Keiko, which is more closely tied to the broader developments beyond town. There something fleeting about young life, but there is something eternal about Tarumi and the tensions simmering for decades between the older people.

The Samurai’s Garden was deceptively simple at the start, but turned into a deeply contemplative meditation on solitude, companionship, love, and loss. I admit to being a sucker for such stories, and the isolated, seaside, mountain village was a breath of fresh air I longed to visit. At the same time, issues of class, nationality, illness, jealousy, and growing up surround the story, sometimes creeping into the forefront of the narrative, but always silently underpinning its developments. For instance, Matsu is a “strong silent type,” but takes on the role of father, always leading by example and dominating the house he has lived in all these years. Yet, despite being a Japanese man in a Japanese village at the time when the Japanese were conquering China, he is still officially a servant. Stephen doesn’t treat him that way, except in the assumptions he makes.

All in all, I really enjoyed The Samurai’s Garden, but it is an idyllic fantasy. Stephen never wants for anything, with someone else paying for the house and the food, having no deadlines, and never needing to interact with anyone who he doesn’t want to see. He pines to see certain people and suffers physical hardship, but is not forced to grapple with most serious concerns. I legitimately enjoyed the book and it offered deep perspective on issues of loneliness, but I do wonder if part of my fondness grew out of the vision of a beautiful garden where the outside world can only intrude with a rain of white blossoms. There are real problems in the world of The Samurai’s Garden, but the garden is a refuge.

Next up, Louis de Berniéres’ Birds Without Wings, a love story between a Christian woman and a Muslim man in early 20th century Turkey.

The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki (T. Anthony Chambers)

Perhaps the easiest way to explain Tanizaki’s 1935 novel, The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi, is to posit the existence of a “secret history” genre, that, if loosely defined could be expanded to include alt-earth or even roughly contemporary mystery-thriller novels such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, the “American Treasure” movies, the Men in Black, or superheros. More narrowly, this genre blurs the lines between fiction, rumor, and history in order to explain how the world was (or is) at a particularly point in time beyond the historical record. The author or narrator of the text usually takes a stance that the record is flawed (at best) or manufactured (at worst), but, thanks to previously disregarded sources, this secret history will fix the oversight.

One frequent trope in this genre is that beneath an honorable facade and commendable actions lie paraphilia–sexual depravity and unspeakable behavior. For instance, Procopius, a sixth century historian from Caesarea, records that the Empress Theodora would exhaust up to thirty young men at a single sitting and lament that she was unable to have sex through her nipples, finding her other orifices insufficient (9). Now, Theodora probably did nothing of the sort and Justinian was almost certainly not a plague-bearing demon intent on destroying mankind (12), but these appear as the causes of suffering during Justinian’s reign in a text that a later Latin title appropriately calls “The secret History.”[1] As a historical record, Procopius’ work is problematic (though not useless), but it is an entertaining read. For the purposes of this discussion, though, this style of narrative, replete with conspiratorial stories and a declaration that the stories will set the record straight are particularly well-suited to fiction.

In Tanizaki’s tale, the author purports to be telling the coming of age story of the lord of Musashi, which, he says, will also reveal the origins of the lord’s peculiar brand of sadistic sexual proclivities that do not appear in the official record and exist only as rumor. According to the author, the official story about the lord is that he was a fearsome warrior and commander during the period of Japanese civil wars in the 16th century, but at the start of the 20th century he has “discovered” two memoirs written by people who were close to the lord and set the record straight. Unlike Stendhal’s The Abbess of Castro, which Tanizaki translated into Japanese in 1928, both the characters and the sources The Secret History are works of fiction.[2]

I cannot say that I loved this novel, but it was short and eminently readable, with enough tension and characterization, particularly with the juxtaposition of the increasing depravity of the lord of Musashi and the aspirations to purity of the people around him, that I was entertained. Despite its content, or perhaps because of it, The Secret History possesses a subdued humor that emerges from the absurd lengths the young man goes through to achieve satisfaction. Moreover, Tanizaki portrays Japanese culture at the time–something I know little about–as obsessed with decorum, which heightens the tension between the Lord of Musashi and everyone else. And yet in the preface, the author says that he sympathizes with the lord because everything he did, including bring peace in a time of civil war, was caused by an overwhelming passion for a beautiful and refined woman who did not reciprocate his feelings. He sympathizes with this man, while simultaneously recording precious little that is actually sympathetic.

Here I am being deliberately vague. The central conflict in the narrative, exacerbated by his introduction to the beautiful and refined woman, is the awakening of his arousal by a particular scene when he was twelve and how the desire evolves over the next decade his life. The changes in his life cause his fetish to change and the pursuit of his fetish changes his ambitions in life, and the author suggests that it is the latter half prompted the actions that would be recorded in the official histories. He concludes by saying that the Lord of Musashi continued seeking a sexual partner who would satisfy his bizarre stimulus after the events in the historical novel, but declines to continue the account because it would detract from how the lord is perceived. Further, in this novel about outlandish sexual proclivities, there is no sex, though, as a warning for the squeamish, there are a few violent episodes. The point of the story–as in historical accounts–is to explain how some state came to be. The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi is not a tabloid tell-all, but is meant to explain how this man was able to bring about peace, with the explanation to be found in his thwarted desire.

The Secret History was a good book, but it also felt to me as though it was a quality addition to a genre rather than a brilliant original piece of literature. The faint praise here may also stem from my limited experience with Japanese fiction and culture, thereby rendering a deep appreciation for the cultural messages impossible. I enjoyed The Secret History well enough that I am going to read another of Tanizaki’s novels, Arrowroot that was translated in the same edition. Anthony Chambers’ translation was smooth and clear and the prose was measured and subtle, but there was also no one aspect of the novel that jumped out as exceptional. For all the adjectives that could be used to describe the story–graceful, elegant, subtle, funny, etc–it is not a book I would emphatically demand people read, but it is one that has my recommendation. As noted above, this was a quick read, only about 130 pages, and if there is anyone looking for something relatively short to read over a weekend, you could do much worse than The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi.

[1] The Greek title is merely anecdota, or “unpublished things.”

[2] This information is in the translator’s prologue. Tanizaki published The Secret History some seven years after his translation.

Assorted Links

  1. The Writing Revolution– From the Atlantic, this information that every educator, particularly those in the humanities, should take to heart. In short, it is the realization that schools have been failing to teach students how to logically compose their thoughts and use their own native language. Once the problem is identified, educators have begun to systematically teach language and writing composition from a young age. This is something I very much support since I often feel the need to teach this information to my students who have reached college without being able to write. Likewise, I feel that teaching these underlying skills will best prepare students for life.
  2. Anti-Japan protests: Outrage to a point– An article in the economist about a series of protests in China about Japan. Some of the people involved suspect that mixed in with the ever-present and historic tension between Japan and China is suppressed social unrest in China.
  3. Minnesota Twins Joe Mauer-A rosy account of the catcher Joe Mauer and his efforts to overcome injuries.
  4. Western Lifestyle Leading to Dangerous Bacterial Imbalances– An article in Spiegel suggesting that western lifestyles are leading to a number of health issues because essential bacteria transfers and growths are not taking place.
  5. Want to Change Academic Publishing?– An article in the Chronicle suggesting that academics should stop giving away labor to for-profit publishers on behalf of peer reviewed journals. The author’s idea is that work done for journals put out by non-profit presses could be considered pro bono, but if the press is in the business of making money (and limiting access to articles), then doing the work pro bono is absurd. Publishing peer reviewed writing is the toughest publishing job by academics and is done without immediate financial reward. I am not sure that a change is viable, at least in the short term, because articles help earn jobs so there is a sort of financial gain obliquely.
  6. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

The March of Folly, a diatribe

Define self interest.

A course of action that brings unto the participant success? Staying true to who one is? Amassing fortune and power? No one has ever willfully followed a course of action contrary to self interest. No one who could be genuinely considered a loyal citizen of a state has ever knowingly set it upon a course contrary to its interest; once they have, they are now traitors, deserters or both. This is one of the main issues with defining self-interest; if someone does something they don’t want to do, it is through coercion or through a different ambition within self interest.

The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman takes the position that throughout history, from the Trojan Horse, to Solomon’s son, to the Great War and Pearl Harbor, Vietnam and beyond, leaders of states have been misguided or ignored good advice to pursue a course of action contrary to self interest. Set aside that she starts off citing mythic and legendary events as historical fact and you are still left a basic premise that people are stupid and self interest is something altogether different from belief. (For information about the historiocity of the Trojan War, read The Trojan War by Barry Strauss.)

To argue that many mistakes and “stupid” actions is an inarguable, albeit trite premise; to argue that history is filled with instances where leaders knowingly or willfully ignorantly perpetrated acts that led directly to catastrophe is simply perverse. Where beliefs, delusions, mistaken assumptions and the like often cause states to follow such policies, it is never the the intention or someone loyal to lose.

Tuchman argues that Japan turned a blind eye to the United States joining the war when it attacked Pearl Harbor. This may be so, and surely there were voices that opposed the attack, but a calculated risk is not the same as a folly that could have easily been avoided. In many respects the United States was already drifting towards war and while F.D. Roosevelt was neither the first nor the last head of state to use an attack as a galvanizing agent, war may have come regardless. The United States had already banned the sale of raw materials to Japan in 1940 and other US bases were attacked, too, just that Pearl was on US soil. Whether sooner or later, US forces would have been caught in the crossfire–FDR would have seen to it.

Secondly, Japan had every reason to suspect that a quick strike to demolish the Pacific Fleet would be sufficient. Of all major states, the US had one of the weakest militaries and “the American Spirit” had never really been tested since it had never really been attacked after the wars of Independence. The sudden and ferocious public outrage is nothing new to anyone who knew the history of the war between the states, but on the world stage, it is of the 30th century. Japan struck a blow even without the US carriers in port, but if they had been there, Japan would have raged uncontested for far longer, the Coral Sea and Midway merely skirmishes instead of Japanese Bloody noses. Fighting spirit or no, the US was fortunate that enough force survived December 7 to hold back the tide.

US success in the Second World War hinged on industrial capacity and while it was the largest producer in the world before the war, no one expected the extent to which civilian industry converted to military production and to which the US outproduced every other nation. Yes, Japan poked a sleeping giant who then rose and returned the gesture a hundred-fold, but by any conceivable standard, US industry in 1942 did the impossible.

Now, to bring this diatribe full circle, is it folly to succeed so spectacularly in a gamble or take any action wherein your opponent does the inconceivable? No, it is not. Hindsight is supposed to be 20/20, but foresight is anything but. This is the crux of the problem.

As an aside, was it folly for Hitler, Napoleon and Charles XII to invade Russia after there forebears had failed? Probably, but each also had reason to suspect victory that Russian topography and climate foiled. They also had never played Risk.

ADDENDUM: Her real argument, such as one exists, is that people are misguided fools who often take unnecessary risks on account of beliefs, whims, obsessions and other psychological issues. This, combined with a succession of like-minded leaders has caused the split of hierarchies or prolonged following of courses not in the best interest of an organization. The problem with this analysis is that she takes stories at face value and will only dig as far as to prove her point. For example, she derides Louis XIV as a failed ruler because his kingdom was war-torn and broke from his military ventures after his long reign, but lauds Marcus Aurelius for his good government; the two had much the same track record as Marcus Aurelius took it upon himself to conquer Germania and prove that the era of Roman expansion had not ended with Hadrian. From the point that a historian is supposed to make judgments about the pas to prove points and successfully persuade, this should not be done by mis-representing or not bothering to find the truth. More than anything this is what bothers me about her book.

ADDENDUM II: The fact is she is a poor historian and while there is just too much misinformation and unjustified assumptions to counter them all, here is my real problem with the book: the premise and thesis is mis-represented. She goes on and on about how FOLLY is something that belief, ambition, shortsightedness and willful ignorance lead into and that it should be avoided, but at the same time argues that grand mistakes, the ones that we can see through the lens of history (whether or not modern morals, values and social expectations are applied) were knowingly or willfully ignorantly perpetrated. Whatever her thesis actually says, the argument of the book is that throughout history mistakes, arrogance and greed have led to catastrophes, to which I can only respond: “duh.”

The problem here is that there is only a tenuous unifying theme throughout the book (i.e. mistakes), and no real historical inquiry. Instead of delving and finding underlying currents, looking at socio-economic, political and religious situations in each time, as well as the trappings of power, nature of monarchy and commonly held misconceptions by one group of people over another, there is just a general narrative of four major events framed within “this is folly.”

Lastly, I am a stickler for turns of phrase. Never should a historian say “A strange reminder of ancient folly appeared at this time: the classic marble Laocoon was rediscovered, as if to warn the Church–as its protoype had once warned Troy.”–especially if they then go on to say that the Pope’s did not heed the warning. Historians should be studied in their time and such statements from a supposed modern historian discredit them to me; even in older writers, if they say something like that, it tends to discredit them, but due to the paucity of sources, it just adds qualifiers to the work instead of tarnishing their scholarship.

ADDENDUM III: I HATE socio-economic history…did I really just say that she needed to pay attention to it? I must be joining the collective…