13 JULY 2017 | KAREN KAO
To read The Gate by Natsume Soseki is to enter a state of meditation. Or, at the very least, to harbor the desire to do so. Sadly, I feel like I should have enjoyed this novel more than I actually did.
To be fair, Pico Iyer’s introduction to my New York Review of Books edition contains a warning to the wise:
Japanese literature is often about nothing happening, because Japanese life is, too.
This novel will not pass muster by today’s standards of storyboarding. Published in 1910, this novel breaths an older air: still and perhaps a little too redolent of meals long past.
I must reset my expectations or set the book aside. And if I choose to go on, then Iyer admonishes me to pay the utmost attention:
You [must] learn to read the small print of life – to notice how the flowers placed in front of the tokonoma scroll have just been changed, in response to a shift in the season, or to register how your visitor is talking about everything except the husband who’s just run out on her.
The main character Sosuke is a man with a past. A dark cloud hangs over his marriage to Oyone though we’re never told what it is. You can guess of course: a lovers’ triangle, an unsanctioned relationship. Maybe The Gate was a lurid bestseller back in the day.
I doubt it. Rather than a page-turner, we get an account of the small events of Sosuke’s life: a haircut, the dentist, a sudden illness and recovery. There really is nothing that happens in this novel.
Yet I loved the everyday things. The streetcars Sosuke rides to work each day. The high clogs he must wear to battle the mud in the streets. The skill it takes to replace paper in a shoji door.
There are conflicts, of course. Old family feuds and envy, too. But the author never speaks in hyperbolic terms. His language is ever elegant and simple.
The two families might be related by ties of blood, but the same sun did not shine down on both houses.
I am a fan of this kind of implicit writing. Yet I could not stop thinking of something Yiyun Li once said. She describes a novel as a process in which the reader tries to hear while the writer tries to speak. If the writer speaks too much, the words become propaganda. But if the writer speaks too little, she ends up whispering.
The novel refers throughout to Japanese expansionism. That period started with the Meiji Restoration in 1878 and ended with WWII. Some young Japanese men naturally gravitated to places like Manchuria and Korea. There, they could find adventure, wealth and maybe danger, too. Like Ito Hirobumi, the Japanese resident-general of Korea who was assassinated in Harbin by a member of the Korean independence movement.
Footnotes to The Gate offer historical context. They explain Japanese terms, places and customs, some of which no longer exist. While sometimes useful, I found their presence in this novel only added to the dryness of the text.
Sosuke and Oyone are not adventurers. They cringe in the shadows. They move from Kyoto to Hiroshima to Tokyo to avoid confrontation with their past. Another move may be imminent but rather than take action, Sosuke chooses retreat. He ventures to a Zen monastery to learn meditation.
Sosuke, however, is as bad at meditation as he is at life. No matter how many incense sticks he burns, he cannot discipline his thoughts.
All manner of things drifted through his head. Some of them were clearly visible in his mind’s eye; others, amorphous, passed by like so many clouds. It was impossible to determine whence they had arisen or where they were headed. […] The traffic coursing through the space inside his head was boundless, incalculable, inexhaustible.
Wendy Johnson, master gardener and Buddhist meditation teacher, has learned how to combine these two very different pursuits. In Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate, Johnson described zazen as:
sitting down in the center of your life, not moving or speaking, and connecting with the rhythm of your breath.
It sounds easier than it is. Last week, I attended a tai chi workshop that closed with an hour long meditation session. We were told that thoughts would enter the mind and that this was ok. Let it happen. Observe it, then let it go.
I struggled all the same, as unsuccessful in my meditation as Sosuke was in The Gate. At this same workshop, I tried walking meditation for the first time. In Johnson’s advice to mindful gardeners, she sketches a perfect picture of how walking meditation should work.
Some days I walk really slowly, especially when I know there is a lot of work to be done. Breathing in, I take a step; breathing out, another step, moving slowly and steadily, like sugar maple syrup rising in early spring sunshine. Other days I move a little faster – maybe three or four steps on the inhalation, four or five as I exhale. Often, when I walk this way, I feel the ground rising up to meet the sole of my foot.
Walking meditation is called kinhin in Japanese. You circle the area in clockwise direction, holding your hands slightly below the belly. You close your right hand lightly in a fist and rest it on the open palm of your left.
In Chinese, this hand position is called chāshŏu (叉手) or simply crossed hands. When you raise your crossed hands, it becomes a salute like the kind an acolyte might have given to Confucius.
The more I think about The Gate, the more I find in its spare words. Not necessarily a story but a glimpse of wisdom lurking just out of reach.
So maybe the fault lies with me. Like Sosuke, I am
someone destined neither to pass through the gate nor to be satisfied with never having passed through it.
And yet: to create that sensation in a reader is certainly worthy of a salute.