Country melodramas

<strong>The Temple of the Wild Geese and Bamboo Dolls of Echizen</strong>

Tsutomu Mizukami, transl

Fukui Prefecture, on the northern backside of the island of Honshu in Japan, has a coastal plain facing the permacold Sea of Japan (which might as well be called the Sea of Manchuria, because that's what's chilled on its other side). Inland, mountains rise, their isolated villages whited out in prolonged winters, the setting for Yasu nari Kawabata's novel Snow Country, with its onsen-spa wisps of steam blank in the niveous landscape. Tsutomu Mizukami, also called Minakami, was born in Fukui in 1919, and never forgot any of its bleak remoteness. There's no snow drawn across like shoji screens to soften the emotions in Mizukami's two novellas based in, or on, his home zone.

In Bamboo Dolls of Echizen, where the location is very specifically a narrow mountain valley, the pervading natural phenomenon isn't snow, though, but damp. The village rooftops crop mushrooms, the air is tainted with mildew, and commemorative camellias have to be planted with extreme exactitude to catch the half-a-tatami-mat's-worth of summer sun. While it lasts, which isn't long. It's a haunting setting for Mizukami's novella, a famous con tribution to an established genre in Japan, craft fiction. This deals with how admired local specialities were first made, or a treasure of a craftsman inspired, in a conjunction of obscure place, raw natural material, object and maker; plus sex, or the lack of it.

In Dolls, a lovable but unloved - because tiny and freak-headed - valley man who tends ten bamboo species around his house as a source of materials for his utilitarian crafts, meets in the city, reached by horse and cart only, a whore who was his now dead father's mistress. She eventually arrives in the valley to marry him and inspires his beautiful dolls, shaped from those rare bamboos, prepares meals and keeps accounts for fellow villagers he recruits to his workshop when his dolls sell through city craft exhibitions. But, at his request, she does not sleep with him. She is his muse and mother and business manager and saleswoman, but not, to her grief, his wife. It all ends in quiet sadness after a rape and failed attempt to seek an abortion: she dead, he fading to his end, the dolls no longer made, the village that had gained access to the unshadowed outside world through their success slipping back into deliquescence.

Mizukami writes exquisitely about the bamboos in growth, and the craft techniques to pare and shave and joint them. He slots together spare, active verbs and short nouns. (All credit to Dennis Washburn's almost not-there first English translation.)

The cold dankness of the doll story is, however, lush in comparison with the landscape of The Temple of the Wild Geese. This is set about the same period, 1930-ish, though both were written in the early 1960s, by which time Mizukami had just made his name with a modern detective story. Wild Geese isn't a whodunnit, more of a howhedunnit, with the how narrated in a tense flashback embedded into the story. The novella is autobiographical in tone and detail, though not in its murderousness. Mizukami had been packed off in childhood as an acolyte - more of an abused dogsbody - to a Zen priest with a nice little business in conducting provincial funerals. Minakami's fictional self in Wild Geese, another big head on a short body, lumbers at the religious and secular donkey work for a worldly priest who inherits the mistress of his drinking partner, a wildlife artist.

You'd imagine the temple, with its pond and garden, its trees, its superb screen of geese that the artist painted before his death, would be a place of grace. But because of the boy, glimpsed lowering and grubbing in long shot, and his effect on the young mistress, it is more disturbing than any Gothic abbey. No creaks, no chains, just the murmur of Buddhist prayers used to cover up the disposal of the murdered priest's body; the bones in a feral hideaway beneath the floor; the purposeful movements of a knife, described in action as carefully as is the assembly of the bamboo dolls in Echizen; and images of kite-hawks and gaffed carp. (Mizukami writes these last two as fearful realities, although in Japan they're usually imaginary devices of taloned power swooping down to kill, and therefore considered most suitable as designs for screens in important buildings.) Beyond the temple is a town where the militaristic government claims extra service from the boy, though he is too small to tote a rifle. Ominous doesn't cover it.

Of course both novellas are melodramas, and stagy, or at least cinematic, in plot. They were both made into films almost as soon as printed, because Mizukami got by for years scribbling at scripts while blocked as a novelist. But their locations, as written, have a physical reality - they stink of rot and carbolic and old mulberry-bark paper that you seldom get a whiff of in western fiction. So glad to read them at last.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Thou shalt not hug