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A Japanese Story-Teller

pages 191-194 from Yet Being Someone Other
by Laurens van der Post
© Laurens van der Post 1982

Somewhere near the centre in a sort of market-place, I noticed, among all the tumult of movement and babble and talk, what appeared to be a place of calm and orderly arrangement of men, women and children, squatting or sitting on their knees, apart from the rest and deeply absorbed in something seemingly invisible. I was strangely drawn towards them and compelled to ask Mr Tajima to take me there.

          The not inconsiderable group of people, so absorbed that they did not notice our arrival, were there at the feet of a man sitting on a yellow mat talking in a low, clear voice. He was dressed in a golden kimono, held with a broad sash woven of green and red round the middle. It was a far more abundant garment than usual, and lay with ample folds around him that overruled any shape or movement of his body within, and fell wide to the ground to disguise even the way he sat. In this sense he was more like a monument of singular authority rather than the man himself. This authority was immeasurably increased by the head and face above the dress. It was the face of an old man with features of a cast so old that it seemed beyond measure of antiquity that I possessed regarding the history of Japan. He looked, in fact, like one of those philosophers, statesmen, poets or resolved servants of the earliest emperors of China, serving, in exile from the people they loved and all that they valued, on the frontier of some remote province among the barbaric subjects of their imperial masters. They did so with such absolute committment that some of the most moving and healing poetry of classical China before its age of `troubles' came from their philosophical brush to convey a quality which seemed personified in the man now talking with such hypnotic power to the little gathering. His skin was like an ancient parchment, covered with innumerable creases and lines as of sensitive writing describing a long record of complex experience of life, and so exacting a metamorphosis of its hurt, injury, conflict and, perhaps even most demanding, the pull of its pleasures. It was the face, indeed, of someone who had made his final peace with chance and circumstance, and so could speak without impediment or interruption because the words that came to him were not so much his own as those of finalities and necessities of life speaking through him. And so, as if to complete the authenticity of the image that came to me, he had a long, thin, grey beard as in the earliest paintings of the pioneer sages of China, while the hands that emerged from the wide sleeves of his coat were elegant, the fingers long, palms broad and used to illustrate his meaning, eloquent not in terms of the words they accompanied so much as of the rhythm of a spirit conducting a sacred rite. Somehow I seemed to know him and his function before Mr Tajima whispered to me, "He is a travelling and professional story-teller."

          I knew it because the look in his eye and the tone of his appearance, despite dress and dissimilarity of circumstances and place, were familiar and dear to me. I had met it on the faces of men charged to pass on the stories of Africa from one generation to another without help of the written word, in the belief that, if their story were ever to be forgotten, they and their peoples would lose soul. I asked Mr Tajima if I could be left there with the listening group. He was at first surprised, looked searchingly into my eyes, was reassured and then so pleased that he blushed with the incapacity of a generation of Japanese to control an endearing phenomenon which happily was as common to all as it is uncommon among us. I thought he turned happily away to join William and our spirit of diplomacy in plus fours, after saying he would come back for me soon.

          I was instantly offered a place on a mat of rice-straw among the listening group, without a lessening of their concentration on this antique story-teller's tale. It was a slight but heartening indication to me of the belief I already had in the power of the story to conserve, increase and unite, which was natural in someone who longed to be a story-teller himself. Ever since I could remember, stories had a way of being more real to me than what passed for real life. Their eventfulness surpassed and transported the importance of the partial realism which people around me regarded as the one and only way of being 'practical'. At that time this belief was in a sense still an unproved and a far from properly exercised and tested emotion. It was sustained mainly by an instinct that my own life was beginning to make sense only in so far as it followed and evolved a 'story' of its own. Since I still hold more than ever to that concept and have been its apprentice for many years, I must at all costs avoid orchestrating that moment in Moji with hindsight. I must leave it to speak for itself through the ease my spirit found in being instantly at one with the group for whom the limpid story that they were hearing was, for the moment, far more real than the celebrations approaching a climax around them.

          I could not follow the words of the story-teller exactly because he did not measure his delivery to my inadequate preparation: and the language too sounded like an ancient one, in keeping with the primordial nature of his function. I understood just enough to be held entirely in that 'Once upon a time' atmosphere which the story transforms into a timeless now wherein past and future are instantaneous, abolishing the sequence and hierarchies of ages and eras, and establishing such an acute propinquity in the dimension of art that Homer, the writers of Genesis and Exodus, Virgil, Dante, Mallory, Shakespeare, the Brothers Grimm, as well as the Hottentot, Bushmen and Zulu story-tellers of my youth, were in one moment present as close neighbours and as if looking over my shoulder at the scene with approval. Yet all I gathered was that the climax of tragedy, already casting its shadow over the tale, was coming fast.

          It appeared that we were in a once-upon-a-time castle of a lord of lords of antiquity. This lord, sickened by the feuding and conflict that led to incessant fighting and killing among followers and subjects, had forbidden provocation of any kind which could lead to still more feuding and was, at the moment that I came to listen, just beginning to feel confident that he was succeeding, where so many others had failed, in delivering Japan from its blood-soaked past. But unknown to him, a potential of more feuding and bloodshed was alive and active in one of his most powerful followers. The listeners, of course, were already deep in the secret and increasingly fearful of its development. The fear was indeed so tangible and pervasive as to be like a premature darkening of evening around us. This subject could not overcome his jealousy and hatred of another as powerful as he, least of all because the illustrious and sensitive person was in agreement with his overlord's ruling and so resolved to observe it loyally. This Japanese Iago thereupon nourished his jealousy with a cunning as great as his zeal. Implicit in the tale already, I discerned, was the power of an abiding pattern of the negation in the human spirit, active as ever to this day, which makes men jealous and fanatical with hatred of a quality of spirit that they are incapable of matching. The realization of the horror and pity of all this came in a gasp of fear from us all.

          We then heard how `Iago' plotted to time an attendance at his lord's court on a day which his spies informed him this rival had been summoned to appear. He hid, unperceived, within the precincts of the castle. When his rival came by on his way to the most august presence of that ancient world, he stepped out and laughed at the surprised man. A cry of horror so intense that I was shocked came from the listeners, although I had already had an inkling of how ambivalent and dangerous a role laughter played in the mores of the land. Here, laughter was obviously intended to be something that could not be overlooked or forgiven.

          So the innocent victim drew his sword and the inevitability of the action and the sheer tragedy implicit in it, although yet to come and still unspecified, held the crowd bonded to a sombre and irresistible foreboding. The villain also drew his sword and, when the guards rushed to intervene, maintained successfully that he had done so purely in self-defence against an action that he had done nothing to provoke. For if ever proof of defence were difficult, indeed impossible, the story-teller made plain, it could not be more so than in the interpretation of a laugh which the villain insisted had been one purely of welcome. The overlord had no option. The crowd knew it and suffered for him, as for the victim, to condemn to death a man he had valued above all others, with the one merciful provision that he could die honourably at his own hand and commit the Harakiri, or the Seppuku as it is called ritualistically. All this was accomplished by the story-teller in dignified fashion but in sparing detail. Many eyes of the listeners near me were bright with an unworldly light of approval of the tragic ritual prescribed for the ambivalent moment when life, through death, is preferable to death through life. For it was elementary that lords and samurai had to know 'when it was right to live and when it was right to die'.

          A woman next to me now began to cry without sound; more out of a strange relief than sorrow at the description of the preparation for the suicide -- the bath of purification, so that body and spirit, which deep down in the Japanese spirit are interdependent aspects of the same reality, would be free of dirt for the journey on into the beyond, and the despatch of the condemned lord's servitors to fetch the purest parchment of rice, ink and virgin brush to write a poem of farewell to the earth.

          So we came to the final act, which I had to follow less through words and gestures and expressions on the faces for whom the world of festival and fair were utterly abolished. There were more tears and it was all that I could do, raised in a more indulgent discipline, not to cry without restraint. But I observed how vividly the stage was set for the appearance of the samurai followers of their dead lord. Convinced of his innocence and in great danger themselves from the increased power of the unscrupulous instigator of the tragedy, they decided to disperse immediately and pledged to meet again in disguise and secrecy, to plan an appropriate revenge.

          At this point I became aware that my three companions were standing behind me, and must have been there for a while, showing signs of increasing embarrassment if not impatience. Mr Tajima whispered, I thought with great reluctance, that we had to leave if we were not to be late at our hotel. I had no option but to withdraw as quietly as I could because I felt departure just then was an offence to both storyteller and listeners. Deeply distressed, I turned away and faced the town where the light was beginning to shine through walls, windows and screens of paper, and from hundreds of many-coloured paper lanterns. The sun had set but over the sea spread out like a cloak of silk on which the tender feet of the gentlest of evenings could walk without danger of contamination; the sun had just set on its way towards the worlds we had left behind us. . . .

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