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Upstairs, downstairs and inside old Japan

by Paul Mccarthy

Companions of the Holiday by Donald Richie, with an introduction by Timothy Harris and an afterword by the author. Tokyo/New York: Printed Matter Press, 181 pp., $15 (paper)

Donald Richie is known to readers of The Japan Times for his regular reviews of books dealing with Asia, and more particularly Japanese culture. We are in indebted to him for his wide-ranging, penetrating, yet usually sympathetic, reviews of a wide range of works. He is known especially for his writings on the Japanese cinema, of which he was one of the earliest and most distinguished scholars/critics. Anyone with a serious interest in Yasujiro Ozu or Akira Kurosawa, for example, will have profited from his writings on those directors.

As valuable to me as his professional writings are his nonacademic, nonfiction journals, essays, character-sketches and travel writings, which make up such a substantial portion of his oeuvre. Everyone will have his or her favorites, but for me “The Inland Sea” travelogue (though it is much more than that) and the collection of sketches of Japanese persons, famous and unknown, that now appears under the title “Japanese Portraits” occupy pride of place.

Those of us who have studied the film works and rejoiced in the nonfiction may have had little exposure to another aspect of this multifaceted writer: his stories and novels. I have, over the years, encountered the very early “Where Are the Victors?,” depicting the beginning days of the Occupation; “Tokyo Nights,” an account of the world of bars and lounges, with their formidable Mama-sans, hostesses, waiters, and customers, Japanese and foreign; and “Kumagai,” a retelling of a story that features in noh, kabuki, and setsuwa (traditional folk) tales from an unusual point of view — economic, one might say, rather than erotic-romantic.

Only recently have I seen the reissue of a novel originally published in 1968 then republished in 1977 and, now, in 2006: “Companions of the Holiday.” It will be of real interest to anyone wishing a complete and rounded picture of Richie’s exceptional taste and talents.

It is a curious novel in several ways. First, it was written by an expatriate, but with a cast of characters that includes expatriates only in a peripheral way, as the master and mistress who come and go, observed, commented upon and judged by the native servants. The interest is not in the foreign characters but in the “indigenous personnel.”

The Japanese characters are not observed from the outside, and particularly not from above, as has often been the case with Western writers. I think there are very few novels written in this way — particularly by Westerners about the East.

Then there is the plot, or rather, its relative absence. The whole story hangs on a linguistic misunderstanding: The foreign wife talks of the need to get rid of a “Miss S,” and though there are two possible candidates, attention focuses on only one until the final pages of the novel. But the real interest is in the multifarious relations among the Japanese characters: steady, responsible-till-death Setsu, the senior housekeeper; young and innocent Sumiko, from the country, whose job may or may not be in jeopardy; Saburo, the meat boy, beefy but shy, who courts Sumiko; Hiroshi, the chauffeur, who delights in reporting the details of his employers’ conversations (conducted in English, of course) to the other servants, with fatal inaccuracy; overweight, gossipy Oharu, with her beady eye on Miss S’s soon-to-be-vacant position; Miss Mariko, the master’s secretary, who becomes “live-in” while his wife is away on travels abroad.

The scheming, gossip, put-downs, and runarounds are worthy of a French farce, as are the mutual misapprehensions, not all of them culturally or linguistically based. Style is of great importance to the novel and its author, and here opinions may divide. The narrative sections are incisive, striking and often moving: e.g., the evocation of season, with fireflies still visible in the Tokyo summers of the late 1950s to early ’60s.

Above all, there is the account of Setsu’s death, seen from her own vantage-point as she moves in and out of ordinary consciousness, passing from her present to her past, with a soldier-husband and a child who dies while still small. Three paragraphs on Page 124 describe the process:

“And why didn’t he come, she wondered, eyes smarting, throat dry. . . . Well, I’ll wait just one more minute, wondering if her new summer kimono would not get dirty from all this soot. . . . ” (She has gone back to an encounter decades ago on a train with her soldier-husband.) “Very well, then, she would not wait, not anymore; she had waited quite enough. . . . Yet she did wait, her eyes straining for a field of cherry blossoms at the end of the long, black tunnel. . . . for the small boy, black and far.

“Looking for the growing hole of light, she waited. . . . And she waited until the end.” (She is approaching her death.) Read in context, passages like these are extraordinarily effective and affecting.

There are also amusing, farcical elements rendered with grace and economy, so the humor never seems strained. “Oharu clutched at her gaping kimono. Stop screaming! she screamed. Then, more composed: It was the dog!” Or, again with the focus on unfortunate, ungainly Oharu: “Collapsing on the floor, she beat the empty air in the otherwise empty house.”

If there is a stylistic weakness, it is, for this reader, in the dialogue. Quotation marks are not used, which is not a problem, and follows in the footsteps of the brilliant 20th-century British author Henry Green, in his “Loving,” for example.

The problem of how to render Japanese speech is resolved not, as most authors and translators do, by putting it into socially and culturally equivalent English (servants speaking like servants, secretaries like secretaries, etc.); and not — thankfully — by giving us quaint, literally translated honorifics, in the manner of Thomas Raucat’s “The Honorable Picnic”; but by creating a rather mannered style that does not sound strange as English but that does sound odd in the mouths of the working-class characters. A minor character, the eggman, speaking of the way foreign men treat women, says “Spoils them, I should guess. . . . Oh, dear. Is that who you were talking about? I wasn’t. . . . ” And Oharu, complaining about a pet: “Feeding the dog, I do believe. . . . Eats constantly, the animal; I do believe it is part pig. . . . Going blind, too.”

This sounds to me more like Regency or fin de siecle characters than 1950s-’60s Japanese working folk. Richie gives his reasons for creating this style of dialogue in his afterword; and even if this convention annoys, I would urge the reader most definitely to carry on, as the narrative passages become more important and powerful as the story proceeds.

For those of us who have come late to Japan, “Companions of the Holiday” (whose title is an allusion to a senryu comic verse, which serves as epigraph to the novel) is a delightful evocation of a world (fireflies in Roppongi gardens!) now vanished forever.