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The Wild Goose

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book cover for the wild goose by mori ogaiMany of us were aware that Burton Watson, the gifted translator of Chinese and Japanese, had a manuscript in his drawer ever since excerpts from The Wild Goose (Gan; 1911–13) appeared forty years ago in the well-known anthology of modern Japanese literature edited by Donald Keene. Now the manuscript has appeared in full, thanks to the University of Michigan’s Center for Japanese Studies. This is indeed a welcome event. Although another translation of this novel has been in existence since 1959, the version by Watson, who is best known to students of modern Japanese literature for his supple rendering of Oda Sakunosuke’s Stories of Osaka Life, is surer and more graceful, and should go a long way to help secure abroad some of the enduring reputation Mori Ogai has enjoyed at home.

One of modern Japan’s most eminent writers, Ogai (1862–1922) is still a relative unknown to English-language audiences and compared, if at all, somewhat negatively to Natsume Soseki (1867–1916), the contemporary with whom he is most often paired by Japanese critics. In the face of conventional Japanese literary wisdom, Edwin McClellan, for example, dismisses Ogai in favor of Shimazaki Toson (1872–1943) as the proper companion author for Soseki in his study, Two Japanese Novelists, arguing that Ogai’s originality as a writer of fiction was limited. Yet while it is true that Ogai’s fictional works lack the dramatic structure of, say, Toson’s The Broken Commandment (Hakai; 1906) or Soseki’s Kokoro (Kokoro; 1914), many are landmark narrative experiments in their own right.

This is not to say that a work like The Wild Goose is lacking in conventional dramatics. It is at first glance the story, seemingly modeled after a Chinese romance, of a kept woman who falls in love with a handsome university student whom she sees passing by her house on his daily walks—all retold by one of the student’s classmates reminiscing from the long-lensed perspective of three decades. But Ogai toys with his romance at every turn and finally undermines it completely. Readers, informed at the end that the woman and the student never did get together but that she and the narrator did (although the kind of relationship goes unexplained), are left with questions that threaten to unravel the story altogether.

Fully half the novel is the first-person narrator’s reconstruction of events leading up to the anticlimactic non-meeting between the woman and the student. But what an eccentric narrator he turns out to be—this “I” who freely transcends the bounds of personal memory and probes the minds of his characters at will. Indeed, the narrator stretches the limits of recall so far that we are compelled to ask ourselves what, in this story, if anything, is true.

The answer, apparently, is not much, but ultimately that doesn’t matter. For the novel is a self-conscious critique of the fictional mode and a meditation on the impossibility of truth-telling by either characters or narrator. Simply to tell stories, we are reminded again and again, is to deceive. Otama, the naive yet ambitious mistress of the moneylender Suez¬, misleads her father (an avid reader of historical narratives who scorns fiction as so many “lies”) about her master’s lowly occupation just as readily as the cunning Suez¬ protests to his half-believing wife the innocence of his relationship with Otama. The biggest swindler of them all, however, is the narrator himself, who cons his readers into believing they are privy to personal recollections, only to cast doubt on the whole story-telling enterprise before he is through. To engage in such narrative sabotage and still produce a captivating tale is no mean accomplishment. That the author succeeds is a measure of his narrative authority—even as he saws away merrily at the limb he has gone out on.

Ogai’s ambivalence about fiction is evident not just in The Wild Goose but in such earlier works as Vita Sexualis (Ita Sekusuarisu; 1909) and Youth (Seinen; 1910–11) as well. They are subtle parodies, respectively, of the romance, the confession, and the Bildungsroman—desultory, dissonantly philosophical anti-novels all. After finishing The Wild Goose, Ogai turned from the grudgingly fictional to the meticulously learned, devoting the final decade of his life to the writing of historical narratives whose fictionality, if it can be called that, lies in the selection and arrangement of events rather than in the events themselves.

The book under review is a visual delight, set in handsome Bembo type and graced on the cover with a radiant print of a Tokyo poised on the cusp of modernity by the woodblock artist Inoue Yasuji. The Center for Japanese Studies is to be commended for producing such an attractive volume, one surely destined for considerable use in the classroom. With The Wild Goose and the many other works by Ogai now available in English,1 instructors could conceivably build an entire course around this writer and his era, focusing on such topics as the construction of tradition in a modernizing nation, the compatibility of Western thought with the Japanese cultural climate, the limitations of intellectual freedom and carnal desire, the exceedingly ambiguous position of women in Meiji society, and the viability of the fictional enterprise, to name a just few. Ogai, in short, bears repeated readings and discussions in a variety of educational contexts.

1. In addition to those mentioned above, translations include The Incident at Sakai and Other Stories and Saiki Koi and Other Stories, both edited by David Dilworth and J. Thomas Rimer. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1977 and later combined into a single paperback volume under the title The Historical Fiction of Mori Ogai . Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1991; Youth and Other Stories, edited by J. Thomas Rimer. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994; and excerpts from Shibue Chusai in Edwin McClellan’s biography of Shibue’s wife, Woman in the Crested Kimono: The Life of Shibue Io and Her Family Drawn from Mori Ogai’s ‘Shibue Chusai’. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985. Biographical and critical studies of Ogai in English (frequently at odds with each other) include the introductions to the translations edited by Dilworth and Rimer; chapters in Masao Miyoshi, Accomplices of Silence: The Modern Japanese Novel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974 and in Donald Keene, Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984; J. Thomas Rimer, Mori Ogai. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975; Richard Bowring, Mori Ogai and the Modernization of Japanese Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979; and Marvin Marcus, Paragons of the Ordinary: The Biographical Literature of Mori Ogai. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990. See also Yoshiyuki Nakai, “Ogai’s Craft: Literary Techniques and Themes in Vita Sexualis,” in Monumenta Nipponica 35 (1980): 223–239; and Dennis Washburn, “Manly Virtue and the Quest for Self: The Bildungsroman of Mori √gai,” in the Journal of Japanese Studies 21 (Winter 1995): 1–32.