There has been no period in the history of modern Japanese society so dramatic and so remarkably tumultuous and fluid as the Meiji Era (1868-1912), and no single work of fiction more revelatory in its depiction of that period than Ogai Mori’s “The Wild Goose.” Now we have, in Meredith McKinney’s just published translation of this iconic novel, a new vein into the heart of that age.
Finlay Lloyd, Fiction.
Not only that: This translation, in its carefully toned and delightfully measured English prose, brings out Mori’s brilliance as a superb craftsman of style. It is no wonder that his prose was considered, in his day and after, to have marked the epitome of style in modern Japanese. It was to this style that Yukio Mishima, another giant of 20th-century fiction, looked as a template and endeavored, in his own fashion, to emulate.
“The Wild Goose” was serialized in Subaru, a leading literary journal, between September 1911 and May 1913. Note these dates, for they straddle the death of Emperor Meiji in July 1912. That death most assuredly brought about the end of an era in every sense of the phrase, and Mori felt this to the quick. Had the Emperor passed on before Mori began writing “The Wild Goose,” I am certain that this story would not have materialized. After this serialization, he turned primarily to historical and biographical fiction, traumatized — and I don’t think this is too strong a word — not only by the Emperor’s death but also by the ritual suicide of Gen. Maresuke Nogi in September 1912, partially in honor of his monarch. Mori and the general were close friends from the time they studied together in Berlin in 1887.
“The Wild Goose” is a backward glance, tinged by a fond nostalgia, at the rowdy transition period that was early Meiji. It is set in 1880, when the modernization of Japan was by no means a fait accompli; and when, in fact, Japanese society was, in many ways, a hodgepodge of compulsive semi-feudalistic obligations and random progress. Into this uncertain mix is thrown Otama, the story’s heroine: dutiful daughter who acquiesces (does she have a choice?) to become the kept woman of the moneylender Suezo in order to save her father from penury, and Okada, the dapper medical student who regularly passes in front of her house.
Mori gives us an amazingly insightful and deeply explored inner portrait — and one far and away ahead of its times — of a woman’s nature. When Suezo is having his way with Otama, she closes her eyes and fantasizes …
“Sometimes she dreamed of being with Okada. … Then, just as delight flooded her, he was no longer Okada but Suezo. She would wake with a start, then lie there sleepless with nervous tension till she wept with vexation.”
In 1909, Mori had published an erotic (and, like “The Wild Goose,” semi-autobiographical) novel, “Vita Sexualis,” also in Subaru. So scandalous was its effect that that issue of the magazine — July — was ordered off the shelves and Mori, a military physician, was severely reprimanded by Undersecretary of the Army Shinroku Ishimoto. Mori had not only inherited the largely freewheeling sexual mores of the Edo Period (1603-1868), but had also been influenced by the values of Germany during his four years there. He augmented his studies of German hygiene by notably becoming intimate with German women, one of whom became the model of his short story, “Maihime” (“The Dancing Girl”) and is said to have followed him all the way back to Japan.
Mori returned from his studies in Germany in 1888. Coincidentally, this was the year that Swedish playwright August Strindberg wrote “Miss Julie.” Mori, who subsequently read the play in German translation, was deeply affected by it, and we see affinities between its heroine and Otama, not the least in the appearance in their life of a caged bird, a symbol of incarceration by their society, Julie being the poor little inhibited rich girl on the way down, and Otama, the genuinely poor girl who dreamt, without prospect or hope, of elevating herself.
The closest Okada gets to Otama is the occasion when he valiantly rescues one of her two birds from the jaws of a python that has made its way into their cage. The other bird, half in the snake’s mouth, is already too far gone. Not long after, Okada leaves Japan for medical studies in Germany.
“The Wild Goose” takes place in a small area of some 4 sq. km from Ueno to Kanda. As such, we have here a true microcosm of Meiji realism. Nonetheless, this district was rapidly becoming “old Tokyo” by the time Mori set his sights on it.
Today Mori is seen as a patriarchal figure of Meiji culture. But a reading of “The Wild Goose” reminds us that he was an arch-provocateur and an author capable of leaping from the platform of the mundane to the trapeze of the metaphorical. Here is a subtle and poetic portrayal of a place and an era, yet one that transcends both: a convincing introduction to the haphazard nature of life.
One bird is killed, another survives. One person is obliged to remain where she is … the other goes where his calling takes him.