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Fuka-Eri’s Favorite Book: The Tale of the Heike

As mentioned in the previous post, I’m in the midst of reading Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. When asked her favorite book, the young girl who writes a brilliant novella within the novel names
The Tales of the Heike
, a twelfth-century Japanese classic. Like the Tale of Genji, the Heike Monogatori (the Japanese name) is sprawling, complicated, and a bit distant for the contemporary reader. Much like the sprawling and complicated Iliad of Homer, the Heike requires an immense investment of time from a reader with a great number of volumes on the nightstand waiting to be read once the thousand pages of Murakami’s latest is finished, especially since Western culture didn’t spring from its pages.

On the other hand, the Heike might not be as distant from our tradition as it seems on the surface. Read the opening sentences of the text.

The sound of the bell at Jetavana echoes the impermanence of all things. The hue of the flowers of the teak tree declares that they who flourish must be brought low. Yea, the proud ones are but for a moment, like an evening dream in springtime. The mighty are destroyed at the last, they are but as the dust before the wind.

Does that sound familiar? It doesn’t really sound much like Homer, although the overall narrative about the downfall of a once-proud and powerful family does sound a good bit like a story Sophocles might have put onto the stage. What I’m reminded of as I read these words is any number of passages from the Old Testament. The first one to come to my mind is Isaiah 40:6-8:

All flesh is grass,
and all its beautyis like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades
when the breath of the LORD blows on it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever. (ESV)

I think it unlikely that Jewish literary influences would have made their way across Asia to stand at the head of one of Japan’s great literary works as early as the twelfth century. Instead, I’d suggest that the downfall of the powerful, the impermanence of life, resonates by itself throughout human experience. The difference between the pride of Saul, for example, or the doom that comes upon Babylon after the finger of God writes upon the wall, mene mene tekel parsin, and the pride of the Taira clan from the Heike is the absence of the controlling God behind the action. In the Old Testament, we witness the destruction of Jerusalem but only in with the promise of a later Restoration in the background. We see the downfall of Babylon but also the God-ordained triumph of Persia.

All this is not to say that the Heike is not worthy of reading. Most Western readers, though, will find it something worthy of knowing about but not traversing all 800-someodd pages.

Posted in Japanese Literature.

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