Friday, March 20, 2015

Comrade Loves of the Samurai by Saikaku Ihara

This little book has been on my shelves a couple of years waiting for the right time to be taken down. This week I have been working in London most days and so the train journey back and forth has provided the perfect environment for a book of short stories like this one.

Saikaku Ihara (1692-1993) was writing in Edo Period Japan, the time of Samurai warriors and Shoguns. I am no expert in Japanese history and literature but I can appreciate that these were not written as 'historical' fiction, but rather as contemporary observations with a little humour and satire thrown in. This collection of thirteen stories was first translated and published as one of the 12 volumes in E. Powys Mathers' great anthology from the 1930s, Eastern Love, sometimes called The Eastern Anthology. These are tales extracted from Saikaku's oeuvre and drawn together by their theme of same-sex love and romance. The copy above is the 1970s paperback printing by Tuttle.

In Edo Period Japan the dominant ethos of homosexual love was that of a grown man with an adolescent boy, very similar to the pattern more familiar in the west from Greek civilisation. These stories are not pornography, they are charming and beautifully observed tales of devotion, love that makes men do mad things, of honour and of eternal love that continues beyond the grave. The titles of the tales give something of the flavour: "The Soul of a Young Man Smitten With Love Follows His Lover On A Journey", "All Comrade Lovers Die By Hara-Kiri", "A Samurai Becomes A Beggar Through His Love For A Page."

Having suggested a comparison with the model of Ancient Greece there is suggestion in these tales that the model wasn't so strictly adhered to in Japan. We have even in this small selection, stories of life long devotion and of relationships between young Samurai of the same age. In one story, "They Loved Each Other Even to Extreme Old Age", the rather self-explanatory title suggests a relationship well past the boundaries of pederastic love and, whilst there is regret expressed for the loss of youth and beauty, it doesn't stop the depiction of a loving and devoted life-long homosexual relationship. 

The stories all fall within what is known at The Floating World genre of Japanese literature of the period, of which Saikaku was a founder and exponent, a genre set in the 'floating world' of urban life, of samurai and merchants, theatres and prostitutes: very very roughly perhaps a 'bohemian' setting. The Japanese word for 'floating world' is also an ironic play on the homophonic Japanese term meaning 'sorrowful world', that is, the earthly plane from which Buddhists seek to escape. That tension between the 'sorrowful' and the 'floating', between the eternal qualities of love and honour and the earthly qualities of passion and bodily beauty is, perhaps, one of the things which makes these tales so affecting to read.

There is a very slight undertone of the supernatural in some of the stories which only goes to strengthen the impression, from the lightness of touch and the lilting narrative, that one is reading a collection of fairy tales. And the collection does not lack for humour either, though it is of the most gentle sort. Beautiful boys are described beautifully in every tale, but you will find nothing much more explicit here than, 'they lay down together for the night'. To be honest I found that rather refreshing to read. Fifty Shades it ain't! If you would like to try something a little different in 'gay literature' that is enchanting without being demanding and yes stays with you a long time after you put the book down, I can't recommend this little paperback enough.

(Whilst we hear there are other booksellers out there, Callum James Books do, of course, try to keep some copies to hand, please ask if we have one currently in stock)
Who links to my website?