Saturday, March 12, 2011

Winter 2010/11, List & Book VI

I. James Madison by Jack N. Rakove

II. The Law by Frederic Bastiat

III. Present at the Creation by Dean Acheson

IV. Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt

V. The Math Book by Clifford A. Pickover

VI. Before the Dawn by Shimazaki Toson and translated by W.E. Naff

I first began to read this immense novel about 19th century Japan two years ago but faltered when summer arrived. It became lost somewhere in the house unable to be found until just recently when I discovered it on a ‘hidden bookshelf’ with my page marker exactly where I had placed it those many months ago. Now, if this had been in the garage, it would still be misplaced (call that lost) according to certain family members!

Before the Dawn was first published in 1932 with the English translation being completed in 1987 by William Naff as a result of his doctoral dissertation about Shimazaki Toson, the author. Toson departed for Paris in 1913 as the first Japanese writer to take up residence outside of Japan. His reasons to leave Japan were not exactly honorable and he never intended to return, but the outbreak of WWI took him home after only three years.

Naff suggests it was some years later before Tolson was able to publicly rehabilitate himself through his second novel, Before the Dawn, by telling the story of his father’s life in the middle of the nineteenth century. This proved to be his masterpiece as it was a fictional history about that time according to Tolson, “…when the old was being discarded even though the new things to replace them had not yet been created”. These were the years leading up to the Meiji Restoration of Imperial Rule.

Before the Dawn is Tolson’s version of the Meiji Restoration, which played a defining role in those events of the nineteenth century that entered the Japanese national consciousness, and had been “…too painful and too filled with ambiguity … to be confronted by the Japanese public”.

The startling chain of events leading to the restoration of imperial rule in 1886 saw Japan evolve from being a feudal society to one having a capitalist economy with a lingering Western influence. The samurai had passed into oblivion.

The history of Tolson’s own family had also been too painful and embarrassing for him to face, and Before the Dawn thus satisfied his personal desire for a more complete and public approach to his family’s actions. It is the story of rural Japan, beginning in 1558, with his fictionalized family of samurai origins, and the great emphasis upon stability, family, and order facing the changes brought about by “enlighten rule’.

Such rule, that was to combine western advancements with eastern values to the centuries old traditions ‘of order of life’, that protected, fed, and nurtured the citizens of rural villages is told in stark detail by Tolson. Of all the shocks that Tolson’s protagonist, Hanzo, had to endure was the program of Europeanization that was so quickly initiated and most difficult to bear. Hanzo loved his vision of the imperial institution. Naff points out that the implications of what took place in nineteenth-century Japan are still unfolding in our own day and no nation or individual remains untouched by them.

Naff further states that the writing of this immense novel as marking the apex of Tolson’s career and had long since earned its author a secure place among the leading figures in modern Japanese literature. Its appearance was the major literary event of its time. To give one an idea of the prodigious writings of Tolson, Naff points us to a 1983 “selected bibliography” that lists one hundred thirty-four books, forty-seven special journal issues, and some seven hundred articles and essays. Before the Dawn, even though a fictionalized version of those historic times, remains the standard against which all other novels about that period of immense change in Japan’s culture are measured.

As I begin once again to read, I am flooded with the mental images describing the life of 19th century rural Japan by Tolson; its adventure, turmoil, and tragedy; and, the richness of its characters that come alive with his writing. I feel assured that you will enjoy this novel as much as any that you have ever read. It is loaded with all that good writing can produce. Enjoy!

Richard Spencer

39th ATS, DAFB, 1962-1965

Book Reviews to Come:

VII. Leviathan by Hobbes

VIII. The Berlin Airlift

IX. Sacred Fire

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