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The River Sumida , By Nagai Kafu

La Sumida - Kafū Nagai, Pierre Faure

[Note: Though I read this in a French translation, there is an English translation - see below.]


Nagai Kafu (1879-1959) was in the second generation of Meiji writers behind that of Natsume Soseki. Early in his career he was a member of the Japanese Naturalist movement/school, whose adherents actually adopted only certain relatively superficial characteristics of the French naturalists to their use. Though Kafu initially claimed Zola as his master, he very soon replaced him with Maupassant. Unlike most of the Japanese Naturalists, Kafu learned some French and made a few translations into the Japanese. Of particular note, his father sent his recalcitrant son to the USA to learn how to be a businessman. Not much was learned about business during his four years there, but he did write a book of interesting short stories based on his American experience. He finally talked his father into sending him to France for a year, where he improved his command of French and had no small number of liaisons with the fairer sex (as he had done in the USA). This sojourn also resulted in a bookful of short stories.

Reluctantly back in Japan, Kafu railed against the evolution of Meiji Japan, accusing his homeland both of abandoning its history and culture and of adopting only the worst aspects of the West. At this stage in his life (around 1910) he loved the pre-Meiji Edo culture (when the capital was transferred from Kyoto to Edo early in the Meiji era, the latter was renamed Tokyo, Eastern Capital). Due to the rapid development in Tokyo, Edo Japan could only still be found in the poorer districts, in the Low City, where the artisans, artists and small merchants lived, and in some of the pleasure districts. Kafu set his Japanese fiction almost exclusively in these districts, as well as spent most of his time there, taking endless walks through the smallest streets trying to forget (then) modern Japan and enjoying the attentions of women from the lofty geisha down to the most miserable "working girls". Under parental pressure, he entered an arranged marriage but divorced shortly after his father's death. He didn't let his brief marriage interfere with his pursuits.


Sumidagawa , The River Sumida, was written in 1909, the year after Kafu's return from France. The Low City was largely concentrated around this sizable river; the Sumida and a few of its neighborhoods are really the main characters in this novel. But the primary human characters are an elderly disowned son and writer of haiku, his widowed sister and teacher of a song style commonly found in Kabuki theater, her 16 year old son and reluctant student (Kafu's birthname was Sokichi; the boy's name is Chokichi), and his first love, a 15 year old girl preparing to enter the Way of the Geisha, where she will be entertaining wealthy and powerful men. All are in straightened financial circumstances.


One can well anticipate the development of this teenage drama, particularly if one is familiar with Japanese literature; fortunately, the interest of this book does not lie there. Kafu's gift is to evoke with precision and sensitivity the appearance, feeling and mood of the Low City. One has the distinct impression of standing next to him watching the late summer sunset over the boat traffic in the Sumida River; of being in the Asakusa Kannon shrine early in the morning as the homeless are rising from the benches scattered about the grounds, and as the early worshippers carry out their purifying ablutions and hurry into the sanctuary; of eagerly craning one's neck in the crowded and malodorous balcony seats way at the back of a theater as the audience attends rapturously to a favorite song in a classic piece of Kabuki and vibrates with excitement as a well loved character makes an entrance. And, unlike so many authors, he summons not only the sights, but also the sounds and odors of the surroundings. In less than 100 pages Kafu's subtle poetry transports us to a time and place whose charms leave a lasting impression.


The River Sumida has been translated into English by the excellent Edward Seidensticker in a book entitled A Strange Tale from East of the River ,


which is a collection of various stories and novellas. Be careful, for there is also a novella by Nagai with the same name.