I recently received a mysterious and very fascinating book: The Book of the Dead by the great Japanese modernist Orikuchi Shinobu, published by University of Minnesota Press. Though written in the 1930s, the book draws from the history of 8th-century Egypt, and it is a short, allegorical, surrealistic work, definitely one of the strangest and most striking titles that I have seen in a while.
To learn more, I reached out to the book’s translator, Jeffrey Angles, who is very well-respected in the translation community for his translations of such authors as Itō Hiromi and Takahashi Mutsuo. In addition to containing the text of The Book of the Dead, this edition also contains a very lengthy introductory essay by Angles, as well as numerous other essays by Japense critics and scholars, making it a really nice edition.
I also spoke to Jeffrey about a recent honor of his: Japan’s prestigious Yomiuri Prize, for his original Japanese poetry. This is a major, hugely prestigious award that any Japanese author would be happy to receive, and it is even more remarkable that Jeffrey, an American, has received it, a this is a very rare occurrence. In the interview we talk about what it’s like to write a such a high level in a foreign language.
Jeffrey kindly answered my questions over email.
Scott Esposito: In your introduction to this edition, you note that The Book of the Dead is “provocative and open-ended” and has been the subject of very much critical interpretation. You later describe it as a “writerly” text in Barthes’ use of the word. I would also add that this is not a terribly long work—just under 100 pages in this edition. What are some of the things that make this book so broad?
Jeffrey Angles: Orikuchi’s novel is a dreamy, mysterious, and exquisitely wrought novel. The main plot features an unusual romance between a woman and a dead prince who suddenly finds himself waking up, resurrected from the dead inside his own tomb. From the very first lines of the novel, we find ourselves in a seemingly magical world, in which myth and reality are constantly intermingling, characters are having mysterious visions, and language is transforming reality in mystical ways. Yet as the novel progresses, our understandings of what is happening to the characters changes as we gather more information.
One of the reasons that readers have found it so provocative is that the novel is extremely open-ended. The plot subtly suggests why things are happening but rarely explains anything directly. Moreover, the plot does not unfold along chronological lines. It moves backward and forward in time, juxtaposing scenes that do not occur at the same time. Also, important characters might appear for a few scenes, then vanish from the story, leaving the readers to figure out what happened to them through small hints dropped in other scenes. In a sense The Book of the Dead is like a big modernist, experimental mystery that only makes more and more sense through multiple readings.
SE: Although this book was written in modern times and first published in 1939, it takes place in the 8th century, and its title and other elements reference the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. Why do you think the author, Orikuchi Shinobu, chose to set his book in such a far away time and invoke such ancient tropes? Is there any particular relevance to the dates he has chosen for this book?
JA: In addition to being a prominent poet and novelist, Orikuchi was also a scholar of Japanese literature and specialized in the ancient Japanese past. Orikuchi once wrote that novels provided him with a way to bring the ancient past to life in a vivid, emotionally complex way that would supplement his more scholarly work.
Orikuchi was especially interested in the eighth century because that was really the time that Japan was emerging as a coherent nation for the first time. During the eighth century, Japan established its first permanent capital in the city of Nara. Buddhism, which had been introduced from China in the preceding centuries, was finally taking root among the Japanese population, and the Japanese were busily developing their own writing system and recording the very first books in the Japanese language. In fact, one of the main characters of the novel is Ōtomo no Yakamochi (ca. 718-785), a statesman and poet who compiled the first-ever collection of poetry in Japanese: a massive compendium known as the Man’yōshū (The Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves). In other words, this was a time that the Japanese state and Japanese sensibilities were being born for the first time, and Orikuchi wanted to explore what that era of so change was like for people who were living in it.
Orikuchi’s own studies of ancient Japan reveal that he was believed strongly that in ancient societies, language (and by extension, storytelling) had a mystical power that could shape the experience of real people. He seems to have been drawn to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, not only because it is the most important literary product of one of the world’s earliest civilizations, but because the Egyptians believed the text had a mystical power that could imbue the dead with new life and usher them into a new existence. This is an idea that he addresses in many forms over the course of the book.
This is a bit of a tangent, but one additional thing I should mention is that Orikuchi wrote the first edition of his novel in 1939, then revised it in 1943. This was the era that Japan was trying to refashion itself into a pan-Asian empire. There are subtle parallels between the eighth century when Japan was first emerging as a nation, and the mid-twentieth century when Japan was developing into a militaristic empire. Some scholars, including me, find in the novel a subtle commentary on the rising militarism of Orikuchi’s own era, but because it was set so far in the distant past and involves so many supernatural elements, the novel made its way past the scrutiny of imperial censors without any trouble.
SE: Although Orikuchi is a venerated figure in Japan, he will likely be new to most Westerners, even those seriously interested in translated literature. Can you tell us a little about him and what made him so special?
JA: As I mentioned a few moments ago, Orikuchi is a well-known poet, so famous in fact, that one of the most important prizes for tanka poetry (the short form of traditional poetry in which he excelled) is named after him: the Shaku Chōkū Prize. (Shaku Chōku is the pen name that he used when publishing his poetry.) He had a strong poetic sensibility that shows up in every chapter of the novel, both in the creative, open-ended, and evocative ways that he shaped the material and also in the richly textured language he used.
Another thing that makes Orikuchi special is that he wrote about his homosexual feelings in an era when most authors who preferred members of the same sex kept their preferences hidden. Unlike some of his other novels and poetry which currently remain untranslated, The Book of the Dead never overtly features love between members of the same sex. However, at the end of his own life, Orikuchi admitted that the main plot of The Book of the Dead was inspired by his own love for a deceased man whom Orikuchi had loved. In the book, I include my own introduction and a translation of a commentary by the Japanese scholar Andō Reiji. Both of us touch upon the ways that the novel seems to reflect Orikuchi’s own sexual history.
SE: What were some of the pleasures and challenges of translating this book?
JA: Because Orikuchi was a scholar of ancient Japan, he had a voluminous knowledge of the distant past, which infiltrates every paragraph—or perhaps every sentence—of the original. He writes in modernistic, fragmentary sentences, but sprinkles in countless words and expressions from classical Japanese. Moreover, he makes frequent reference to people, places, and things that are not necessarily even familiar to modern Japanese readers. Orikuchi often quotes poems and remarks upon historical events without referencing his sources or providing much explanation.
Tracking down some of those things was a real headache! As a scholar who specializes in modern Japanese literature, I had to spend a huge amount of time reading about ancient Japanese history and culture to try to represent the world of ancient Japan as accurately as possible. To help out Anglophone readers, I added an explanatory introduction, footnotes, and a glossary of people and places mentioned in the text.
SE: What are some works of world literature that you might place alongside The Book of the Dead, and what contemporary Japanese authors has Orikuchi influenced?
JA: One might compare The Book of the Dead to Gustave Flaubert’s 1862 novel Salammbô and Oscar Wilde’s 1891 play Salome. This comparison might seem odd at first, since they were all written at different times and in different genres, but all three of these works are set in formative moments in the ancient past when new sensibilities were emerging. Plus, all three authors hoped to explore of the distant past to suggest new aesthetic directions for their own eras. Andō Reiji, the scholar who wrote the commentary also included in the same volume as my translation, believes that Orikuchi shares a common sensibility with André Breton, who also was writing about the same time as Orikuchi and who also drew upon the myth of Isis and Osiris for inspiration.
I have to say, however, that Orikuchi is a distinctly unique author. He died in 1953, before his most important novel The Book of the Dead had earned its rightful place as one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century literature. During his life, his work did not foster a new generation of Japanese novelists directly. (He was better known as a scholar and a poet while alive.) Those influences came posthumously.
The prominent, contemporary avant-garde poet Yoshimasu Gōzō counts Orikuchi, and the avant-garde experimentalism of The Book of the Dead as one of his greatest influences. Asabuki Mariko, a genius young author who has not yet been translated into English, also bears traces of Orikuchi’s influence. I’ve never heard Murakami Haruki reference Orikuchi, but I think that there are some parallels there. Both authors feature strange, illogical plot twists, but describe them in relatively realistic ways.
I should note that Orikuchi has also influenced people working in different media. Kawamoto Kihachirō did an absolutely gorgeous stop-motion animation version of The Book of the Dead that won critical attention around the world upon its release in 2005. And in 2015 and 2016, the graphic novelist Kondō Yōko did a wonderful manga adaptation of the novel that I’m hoping to translate into English.
SE: I also wanted to ask you about your own creative writing, as you recently received the extremely prestigious Yomiuri Prize for Literature in the poetry category, the first American to ever be awarded this poetry prize. Your winning book, Watashi no hizukehenkōsen (My International Date Line), was written in Japanese. Can you tell us a little about how long it took you to develop your Japanese language skills to a level suitable to do this kind of literary writing, and how you came to begin writing poetry in Japanese?
JA: I have been studying and reading Japanese for thirty years, but even so, every time I sit down to write, I have to admit I feel the interference of my first language, English, acting upon my second language, Japanese. I think and write directly in Japanese, but nonetheless, there is still a quirkiness in my Japanese that comes from having learned it as a second language when I was a teenager, thirty years ago.
I have always loved to write—stories, diaries, poetry. In graduate school, however, I learned that there are many first-rate, world-class poets in Japan haven’t yet been translated, so I turned my literary aspirations toward translation. For more than a decade, I translated poets like Tada Chimako, Itō Hiromi, and Takahashi Mutsuo, but at the same time I was translating, I was also studying their stylistics and methods. However, it was after I earned tenure and was living in Japan doing research that I finally felt the freedom to take the time away from the demands of the scholarly life and try writing my own poems.
To my surprise, the poets whom I showed my earliest poems were stunned. They all seemed interested in the fact that although I was using Japanese, I didn’t necessarily use it quite the same ways as a native Japan-born author would. In one of my recent readings in Japan, Takahashi told me that my writing had an unusual, quirky logic to it that a Japanese author couldn’t imitate even in they tried. Of course, that’s perfectly okay with me. After all, I feel like I live between two nations and languages, and it only makes sense to use a language that reflects that!
SE: What sorts of poetic forms did you use for this book? Did you attempt to work within the forms of the Japanese tradition, or did you use more Anglo forms, or some combination thereof, or something entirely different?
JA: All the poems in the book are in free verse. I have experimented with writing in traditional Japanese poetic forms such as haiku and tanka, but both of those have such a long, weighty history with so many conventions, set phrases, and ritualized modes of expression that I feel much freer and happier when unconstrained by meter and form. There are lots of poets who write in free verse in contemporary Japan, and so I am more akin to them to figures like Orikuchi, who drew upon the classical traditions in their poetry.
SE: As someone who has long translated from Japanese to English, you must be sensitive to the differences between the languages and their relative strengths and weaknesses. Are there certain things that you feel you are better able to express when writing poetry in the Japanese language, in contrast to working in English, be it as a poet, essayist, or translator?
JA: I don’t know if this is a direct answer to your question, but as a translator, I’ve always been intrigued by expressions that differ between the two languages, and those differences often form the point of inspiration for my poems. For instance, in one poem, I drew upon the fact that the simple English word “return” has many possible different translations depending on context. A return to the start, a return of an undeliverable letter, and the return key on a keyboard are all different words in Japanese, and so I weave some of those different words together to make a poem. Another poem was inspired by the fact that the words for bedroom and for ventricle (the chamber of the heart, that is) are homonyms in Japanese: shinshitsu. I don’t think that these are things that a monolingual Japanese person necessarily pay a lot of attention to, but those things make my imagination race.
I think it was because of this interlinguistic play that the prominent novelist Ikezawa Natsuki, one of the judges for the Yomiuri Prize, selected my book for the award. In his comments, he wrote, “This book of poetry taught me that there are special territories that only people who have two languages embedded deeply within themselves can reach.” When I read that comment, I couldn’t have been happier.