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A life between East and West

by Hiroaki Sato

THE MASK CARVER’S SON, A Novel by Alyson Richman. Bloomsbury Pub Plc USA, 371 pp., $23.95.

This is an imagined autobiography of a Japanese artist who studied in Paris around the year 1900.

The artist, given the name Yamamoto Kiyoki and dates 1875-1967, is the son of Yamamoto Ryusei, a carver of noh masks for the Kanze School. Ryusei’s adopted father, Yuji, represents the last glow of the Kanze line of noh actors during the time when things traditional are rapidly falling into neglect in favor of anything Western and new.

Ryusei names his son Kiyoki (“clean wood”), expecting him to inherit his trade, and duly gives him the necessary tools. But from early on, Kiyoki is more interested in painting — Western painting — and eventually leaves his father in Kyoto to go to the Tokyo School of Fine Arts.

He knows the school was established only a few years earlier — in 1889 — by the American Ernest Fenollosa and Okakura Tenshin to counter the rage for Western arts, but there is no other art school he can attend. Inevitably, Kiyoki finds the school’s “customs and curriculum . . . archaic and regressive” and himself “disgruntled and understandably disillusioned.”

The only good thing about the school for him is finding an attractive fellow student, Noboru, for whom he develops a homosexual attachment, albeit unconsummated.

As soon as his father dies, Kiyoki sells off the family holdings, valuable noh masks among them, and goes to Paris. What a difference!

“I passed the patisseries, with their jelly tarts and their buttered rolls. The luxurious and rich smells of the sweetshops permeated the damp air, and I recalled my first smells of Tokyo: the rank stench of the fermenting natto, the heavy grease frying the tempura, and the fish skins roasting on the fire. In Paris, women’s perfume intermingled with the smell of preserves. A cloud of sweetness, masking anything foul!”

Kiyoki is accepted as a pupil by Raphael Collin. The French master taught a number of aspiring Japanese painters and, as one of Kiyoki’s caretakers in Paris explains, “was trained as an Academic painter, but does not object to introducing some of the newer, fresher techniques of the Impressionists.”

In their first meeting, Collin tells Kiyoki: Europeans and Japanese “train similarly [by copying the masters], but we are expected to create something new in the process. In Europe we encourage our students in their unique vision of a particular subject.”

Kiyoki muses, “His words were revolutionary to me. Originality was indeed a foreign concept to us Japanese.”

Despite his homosexual inclinations and loyalty to faraway Noboru, one day Kiyoki is persuaded to attend a masquerade ball with a French girl, Isabelle — “the most exquisite creature I had seen since Noboru,” he reports, “in costume as a faun.”

In the event, he takes her home, but instead of making love he paints her nude: “. . . the curve of her back, the plumpness of her derriere, the fullness of her breasts. The nipples the color of crushed poppies, the shadow cast underneath her arms, the color of wet lilacs.”

The painting, “The Fairy Faun,” is selected for the Salon and wins pride of place on the exhibition wall.

Kiyoki returns to Tokyo. First, he finds that Noboru has abandoned him in favor of a younger man. Then his first exhibition ends up as “a disaster.” No Japanese critic understands “the new French style,” as a friend of his kindly puts it. Kiyoki himself bitterly notes: “Even ‘The Fairy Faun’ did not catch their fancy. The critics condemned it as odd and disarming.”

With no prospect of an academic position (those were the days when an artist could expect an offer of professorship by simply studying in Europe), Kiyoki withdraws to his hometown, Kyoto. There, he repaints the pine tree painted on the wall of the now utterly neglected noh theater where his grandfather died while dancing, and, like a prodigal son come home contrite, exclaims, “I have returned!” The exclamation proves premature.

With no teaching position, “no fame . . . no distinction,” Kiyoki begins to be treated as an outsider. “The old ‘obasans’ with their hunched backs and crooked smiles glared at me through their cataracts. The village youngsters snickered as I walked past their school. Whether it was small children or elders who probably knew me as a young boy, all could sense that I was not like them.”

So he sells the expensive noh costumes that he happens to find in an unsold piece of property, a decrepit storehouse, to a foreign collector. That’s what he had done with the noh masks to go to France. With the new funds he goes back to France. “For in France there were no expectations as to how I should be. I was undeniably different and would never be French. But in the end I could do as I pleased and act as I wanted to without anyone ever condemning me for my oddness.”

He returns to Japan only because of the Great War. Thereafter he lives in his native land as a recluse until his death.

“The Mask Carver’s Son” is the American writer Alyson Richman’s debut work. The author, young and venturesome, has set herself a triply difficult task: writing the first-person narrative of a male in an alien culture whose world starts in the latter half of the 19th century, now remote. It is a valiant, admirable effort.

I confess I was mostly unsure of the authenticity of the voice and observations until Richman moved the scene to Paris and began to describe French women. Then I breathed a sigh of relief. The time is equally remote, but, perhaps because of the assumed cultural (and, may I say, sexual) affinity, her narrative becomes a little more convincing.