Pico Iyer Journeys

A Call Through the Mist

It is, in fact, an injustice to call Richie a writer on Japan; really, he is a writer on artifice and time and death; on being human. And most of all he’s a writer on the particularly modern art of learning how to be a foreigner. As universal travel has propelled more and more of us to lives very far from the places where we were born (and brought the Other to every neighborhood), the writers of the past few decades have often been chroniclers of Abroad. Paul Bowles takes us into the skins of those half-innocents abroad who so seek out a foreign mystery that at last they are consumed by it; Graham Greene gives an almost theological quality to the lonely orphan far from home, reaching out for a friend who turns out to be corrupt, or doomed, or both; and Jan Morris has taken into the modern world the image of a universally sensitive writer, traveling alone, taking in everything with a sympathy made deeper by the fact it’s undeluded. Donald Richie belongs in their company as much as any; and in the company of Maugham, say, touring around the human landscape with a tolerant acuity. And he has more to say than anyone I know on the expatriate condition, the freedom of the man abroad, and the poignancy that underwrites it. He needs to be read by people with no interest in Japan, and by those who never plan to visit that far off island.

The only problem with Richie’s writing, in fact, is that it’s never been easy enough to find around the world, in part because people, knowing him to be a writer in Japan, assume that he’s a writer on Japan. And as a pure, reflective writer of a kind that seems all but antique, he has done nothing to sell himself to the world or to dress himself up with gestures or high concepts (indeed, part of the beauty of his prose is that it has the unforced, unmistakeable sound of someone thinking, honestly and rigorously, to himself). Stone Bridge Press began to rectify this absence with its publication of the Donald Richie Reader last year; but the best place to get him all in one place, and in one uninterrupted narrative, is The Inland Sea.

I will not spoil the pleasure of meeting these pages for the first time by writing at length about my own favorite moments (the sound of the lepers’ bells from the beautiful island where even the healthy are imprisoned); and I will not belabor the point (as is made in the Afterword) that the places he saw fading in 1971 are now thirty years closer to extinction. I will not even bother to note that the Japanese you meet here, being individual and true, are not at all like the people you have heard about: they get up late and dislike perfection and are not, he tells us, uniquely clean. Many of the people he encounters are virgins, in every sense, and he goes out of his way, almost, to see those places where the Japanese take siestas. Of all the writers who bemoan the passing in Japan, Richie is the only one I know who’s Japanese enough to see that in their passing lies a good part of the beauty of most things.

All I will say, rereading this book now, after fifteen years in Japan (and finding, as all of us do, that everyone who writes on the place writes in his shadow and his debt), is that there’s something in the mizu-shobai, or water-trade (as the Japanese call their night world), that seems to touch the core of him. The cheerful celebration of illusion, the acceptance of human folly with a surprising, engaging innocence, the very delight in evanescence and the sadness and beauty it accompanies–all seem the essence of both author and subject. “I heard the cicadas,” as he writes, “the moment they ceased.” In the floating world Richie finds his perfect image of a pleasure that remains just around the corner, and of a beautiful, made-up world that gives you everything you want, and by virtue of that giving, leaves you just a little bit unsatisfied.

Richie writes, hauntingly, immortally, about the Japanese feeling for sadness, their gift for being pleased, their thoughtfulness and (as he puts it, elsewhere, of Kurosawa), their “knowing tranquility,” and at some point one begins to realize that he’s writing of himself. This most gracious of guests has found his kindred spirit in this most gracious of hosts. The Inland Sea (and the title seems no coincidence) refers, as much as anything, to that watery, wistful, half-vanished place inside himself. If you need to understand this better, I suggest you turn now to the epigraph, and everything that comes after.

–Nara, Japan

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