No, not that Narrow Road to the Deep North, the ubiquitous Booker winning novel by Richard Flanagan gracing every shelf of every bookshop at the moment, but the original travel sketches by 17th century haiku master Matsuo Basho. He of the sublime poetry. That one.
Translated by Nobuyiki Yuasa, this slim volume presents all of Basho’s travel sketches, starting with his novice work ‘The Records of a Weather Exposed Skeleton’ to the work which is believed to be his most perfect ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’. For those unfamiliar with Basho and his significance in Japanese literary tradition, there is an excellent introduction by Yuasa which details both Basho’s history and life, as well as the tradition of haiku poetry of which Basho’s are the most sublime. For a more Westernised analogy, think Japan’s Shakespeare and you’ve probably got it about right. Haiku, for the uninitiated, is a three line poem composed in of lines of five – seven – five syllables. There is infinitely more to it than that, and obviously the haiku in the book are translations so the five – seven –five structure doesn’t entirely come across. Yuasa explains in some detail his approach to the translation, and it is well worth reading the introduction before embarking on a reading of the sketches.
Interjection: I love haiku. They are little breathless moments of abject perfection. Like watching a heron’s graceful landing break the perfect surface of a pond.
The book includes the five travel sketches Basho made in his lifespan and these are presented in chronological order which elucidates how Basho’s skill develops over his various journeys. In the sketches, Basho seeks to combine prose with haiku which gives both a record and a flavour of the journey he has undertaken. It is a strange combination, elevating the sketches beyond mere journaling into something which moves the spirit, and this is no more evident in the final sketch, the memorable Narrow Road to the Deep North, in which the blend of haiku and prose, his personless observations, attain a kind of eternal grace. It is hard to put it into words, but it is at once calming and uplifting. And there’s a perfection about it which seems effortless.
“Days and months are travellers of eternity. So are the years that pass by.” Basho begins in this brief tale. What follows is, largely, unimportant. He visits some shrines, meets an old friend, writes some poetry, suffers, struggles, regrets the trip and regrets its ending. But this, these facts and elements, are not what is important about this book. It is the perfect pace, the peerless intermingling of poetry and descriptive prose, the gentleness of emotion, the faint odour of melancholy. I’ll allow the book to speak for itself for a moment.
“The whole mountain was made of massive rocks thrown together, and covered with age old pines and oaks. The stony ground itself bore the colour of eternity, paved with velvety moss. The doors of the shrines built on the rocks were firmly barred and there was not a soul to be heard. As I moved on all fours from rock to rock, bowing reverently at each shrine, I felt the purifying power of this holy environment pervading my whole being.
In the utter silence
of a temple,
A cicada’s voice alone
Penetrates the rocks.”
I have read, in my time, quite a number of Japanese books. I have learned some of the history of Japan and a little about its culture. Reading Basho makes me realise that I have barely scratched the surface, that there is a depth here that I can barely penetrate without the cultural background and understanding to untangle it. In spite of this, and perhaps because of the benefit of reading the earlier travel sketches, I can still feel something magical in this brief travel note. I can only respond with a meagre haiku of my own:
It may be narrow –
the road to the deep north, yet
I am enlightened.
My copy of The Narrow Road to the Deep North was published by Penguin Classics