The last page of Donald Richie’s most recent offering, “Botandoro,” reveals that he has, in his long and productive life, published no fewer than 35 books. The word “prolific” is unavoidable.
If one goes on to study the list of titles — from “Walkman,” “Manga” and “Society” to “Zen Inklings”; from “Notes for a Study of Shohei Imamura” to “The Japanese Tattoo” — and notices that Richie’s work includes criticism, fiction, essays, philosophy, memoirs and more, the word “breadth” also imposes itself. “Botandoro,” a diverse collection of “stories, fables, parables, and allegories” written over 70 years, is, in its scope and the skill with which it is written, a microcosm of an astounding literary career.
Richie, it is clear, is a restless artist. He is not the sort who, having mastered one trick early in his career, devotes the rest of his years to repeating it, a procedure that usually peters out in a series of paler and paler imitations of the ever-receding success. Rather, in fictions ranging from bawdy tales drawing, one assumes, on Richie’s early days in Tokyo, to naturalistic accounts that evoke his American upbringing, to allegories that unsettle, Richie has avoided comfortable, if competent, monotony. He manages, always, to keep it new.
It is not surprising that early in his career Richie was influenced by the giants of the time. Published in 1942, “Tumblebugs” bears the mark, in its spare language, of Hemingway and, in the mythic bleakness of the rural life it describes, of Faulkner. It is the story of a poor couple, the woman sick and the man sullen, trudging toward a farm where the man, Jim, has been promised a job. He will get the position if the couple can arrive there by noon; it is clear, early in the tale, that they won’t make it.
“Tumblebugs” is unrelentingly accurate in its depiction of the lot of the American poor during the Great Depression (and during the current one); it is not, however, unrelentingly bleak. Like Samuel Beckett’s characters — “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” — Richie’s rural wanderers persevere.
“Come on, Jim. We got to get there,” the woman urges her partner.
“All right, let’s go,” Jim says, and what has given him, in the midst of his defeat, the spirit to say so is something that, as poor as he is, he still owns: “Christ’s sake,” he says, “smell that hay.”
From the high seriousness of the young Richie, readers can jump 57 years into the future and meet an older and altogether less somber author who describes “Five Encounters at a Couples Coffee Shop” (1999).
A long-term resident of Tokyo recounts five visits to douhan kissa, “couples” coffee shops, that he has made with visiting foreign women who were curious about what goes on at such places. That the narrator is able to satisfy his friends’ curiosity, and that Richie is able to satisfy ours, in a manner that is neither prurient nor censorious, is one of this tale’s attractions. A greater one, however, is the story’s tone. These five encounters are told, as the subtitle reminds us, “in the style of Nagai Kafu” [1879-1959], and that glance backward gives Richie’s account just the lightness it needs.
The lightness of the later Richie, at times, conceals a point. This is evident in “Pages From an Autobiography of a Bloodsucker” (1999), an allegory that works on both of its levels: the story of a vampire, at once ashamed of his predilection and driven by it; and the story of a sexual minority — both similarly uncomfortable with the desire that defines them.
Richie, in his later tales, has come a long way from early work such as “Tumblebugs.” How, one wonders, will he amaze us next?