Thursday, January 29, 2015

January in Japan: The River Ki | Review

There's no doubt about it - The River Ki (by Sawako Ariyoshi, translated by Mildred Tahara) is a book largely marred by an old-fashioned, clumsy and entirely outdated translation. Which is a shame, because the book is largely fascinating in every other regard.

I'll be honest in saying that I chose to read The River Ki for January in Japan largely because it was one of the only Japanese books I could find on my shelves (in fact, it was the only one I had in print, any other books would have had to be borrowed or borrowed digitally from the library and for some odd reason that appealed to me a little less...). My reason for owning The River Ki is somehow even sketchier - I bought the book during my summer book-buying extravaganza for very cheap at a book warehouse, and almost exclusively because it was one of the only "women in translation" appropriate titles I could find (and from a series entirely devoted to Japanese women writers!).

All this setup to say that within the first page, realizing how utterly dead the writing was going to sound, I could have - should have - abandoned the book by recognizing it as a dud.

Which of course it wasn't. Because despite the at-times-painful writing/translation, The River Ki is a deeply emotionally resonant book. And you all know me: I'm a big fan of emotional resonance. If a book manages to get me caring for its characters, or feeling something for them (it doesn't have to be positive), I'll most likely stick around. And boy did The River Ki get me to care.

The story begins with Hana, a largely passive young woman who leaves her home at the age of twenty to marry Keisaku, a well regarded young man who Hana largely inspires to greatness. Keisaku's political career becomes a curious side-plot in the novel, as Hana subtly guides him and motivates him. This is as strong a characterization as you'll find - Hana is quietly old-fashioned and submissive, but she also uses her talents wisely, if quietly. She recognizes immediately Keisaku's political potential, similarly recognizing the problems that Keisaku's younger brother will have (particularly in his antagonistic love of Hana). When she gives birth to her first son, and afterwards her first daughter (Fumio, who will star in the second section), she also recognizes the strengths and weaknesses of her children - that Seiichirō will not be as ambitious as his father might wish (and ill-suited to politics), and that Fumio has all the headstrong qualities that Seiichirō lacks.

Hana's section was interesting to me in large part because of how it framed the story - she defers to tradition (whether in terms of her grandmother's superstitions and old-fashioned beliefs, or in terms of her position as the "good wife" and "good daughter-in-law") and remains steadfastly in the old era. The River Ki begins just before the new century (the 20th, of course...), and tracks the stories of these "modern" women through just after the war (the novel was ultimately published in 1959; the story ends about a decade earlier). There's the constant question of modernity and where women fit in. Hana is supposedly the image of the submissive, old-fashioned wife, yet her grandmother had ignored tradition in sending the girl to be well-educated (for the time).

Fumio is obviously more overtly progressive, even feminist. She fights to be allowed to study (and not simply study the "female arts", rejecting almost every traditional form of study offhand), and later insists on marrying a man with whom she lives a "modern" life. At first. Because one of the things The River Ki shows quite strongly is that there is room for both tradition and modernity - Fumio gives birth to her children in hospitals, but after losing one child also joins Hana in setting out traditional breast charms. Later, Fumio's daughter Hanako is shown to be fascinated by Hana's stories of the old city and the old traditions. The symmetry of generations, of things moving forward but also always being interested in the past, is one I've always appreciated in good epic novels. The River Ki has the added advantage of being significantly shorter than most.

But now it's time to point to what dragged this novel down so significantly: the writing and translation.

I know: it would be much easier and much more courteous to pretend that the translation was clear and brilliant and serviceable. But... it's not. Translator Mildred Tahara gives The River Ki such a stilted feeling that it's really quite hard to appreciate at times. Things that should be in footnotes are integrated into the story (I'm sorry, but an explanation about a Japanese play on words will never belong in the body of the text! This is what footnotes were invented for), things that may require translation are never bothered with, and places where some historical or cultural context may have helped are altogether passed over. It's a bizarre mix of assuming the reader knows nothing (hence the constantly in-text explanations of things that most definitely belong elsewhere) and assuming the reader knows everything (there were references here I know for certain other readers would have appreciated having some background on).

And then there's the writing itself. Or rather, the framing itself. Sawako's storytelling is less focused on the "pretty writing" aspect, more on telling the story of modern womanhood. And I loved that story, I found it truly fascinating. But there's a clumsiness to the passage of time, and an awkwardness to how the characters are built. I cared about Hana and Fumio (Hanako a little less so, largely because we spent significantly less time with her), but there's something coolly distant about their characters nonetheless. It's rather interesting that I got so emotionally invested, actually (I place the blame firmly at the feet of Toyono, Hana's fierce and protective grandmother who I sort of fell in love with from the first page).

Is it worth reading The River Ki? I... don't know. I sort of wish a more modern translation existed, because I found the content very interesting in terms of showing the culture clash between modern feminism and traditionalism, while rejecting neither. It's content worth reading and thinking about and discussing, but it's also not exactly the most comfortable or enjoyable reading experience (in the literal sense). I guess I'd say that readers who are more capable of looking past an old-fashioned translation should take a whack at it, but those who think a poor translation can break a book should pass it over (no point in even trying). I'm glad to have read The River Ki, but I find it difficult to recommend, especially when there are so many other better books out there (and for a Japanese book about women's experience, I'd opt for The Budding Tree, which only gives a traditional perspective, yes, but a more cleanly defined one and it's significantly more artfully crafted).

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