David Burleigh: Best books of 2009

“The road of excess,” said the English poet William Blake, “leads to the palace of wisdom,” which might serve as an epigraph for this skillfully assembled, sharp and witty book about the drug-fueled quest of certain American poets for enlightenment in India in the 1960s. The sweetness of the whole experience came to Allen Ginsberg afterward so that “in his train seat on the Kyoto-Tokyo express, he wept.” The overwhelming revelation was not after all the blue hand of Krishna, but “really a rather simple thought,” remarks the author. And after the Beats, of course, there came the Beatles.

A BLUE HAND: The Beats in India, by Deborah Baker. Penguin Press, 256 pp., $25.95 (hardcover)

CHO-I / MESSAGE FROM BUTTERFLY, by Michio Nakahara. Translated by James Kirkup and Makoto Tamaki. Yuushorin, 250 pp., ¥3,000 (hardcover)

Half a century after his first arrival in Japan, the gifted and prolific English poet and translator James Kirkup passed away this year in Andorra, the mountain fastness to which he had retreated in later life with a Japanese companion, and where he continued to write. Though Kirkup was 91 when he died in May, contributions from his restless pen continue to appear in several journals, and this handsome bilingual collection of poems by an important living haiku poet carries the legend “Kirkup’s last work”: The hands that have stopped / writing resemble the wings / of a frozen crane.

TOKYO FIANCEE, by Amelie Nothomb. Translated by Alison Anderson. Europa Editions, 160 pp., $15 (paper)

“Fate, renowned for it sense of humor, decreed that I should be born Belgian,” writes the quirky Francophone novelist Amelie Nothomb, who was actually born in Kobe, and came back to Japan as an adult. “Before Japan, I’d never thought about writing seriously,” claims the now-successful author of two-dozen books, this being the second to deal with her short-lived return. The odd mixture of nostalgia for the land of her childhood, engagement in every sense, and finally recoil, is eagerly recounted. Mount Fuji may be a dormant (not a “dead”) volcano, but Nothomb’s tale is a spirited, refreshing, highly entertaining read.

David Burleigh grew up in the north of Ireland and has lived and worked in Tokyo for 30 years.