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Wild Geese by Ogai Mori

Wild Geese (edition 2009)

by Ogai Mori

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168270,815 (3.87)14
Title:Wild Geese
Authors:Ogai Mori
Info:Tuttle Shokai Inc,Japan (2009), Edition: 2Rev Ed, Paperback, 128 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:fiction, Japanese literature, novella, Tokyo, (2012 reads)

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The Wild Geese by Ogai Mori


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The events of my story took place some time ago—in 1880, the thirteenth year of the Meiji era, to be exact.

At the start of this short novel, the narrator described his friendship with a handsome student named Okada. Okada often walked the streets of Muenzaka in the evening and one time he happened upon a beautiful young woman living in a house in a silent neighborhood. Through his regular walks he had become acquainted with her, even if "the appearance of the house and the way the woman dressed strongly suggested that she was someone's mistress."

The Wild Goose, also known as The Wild Geese, by Mori Ōgai (1862-1922) was a dazzling and iconic Japanese novel about Otama, the woman who agreed to become the mistress of Suezō, a shrewd moneylender, and her acquaintance with Okada, the young student she fell in love with. Through gentle prose, Ōgai presented their interlinked stories while illuminating the attitudes and mores of late nineteenth century Japan, at the cusp of its transition to a modernist society.

It was a time when men of means like Suezō could hire go-betweens to negotiate and procure for them a mistress. The practice was then taboo and mistresses were then, as now, strongly discriminated against. Otama's previous marriage to a policeman turned out to be a sham, leaving her completely discouraged about her future prospects. Her plight was to be poor and her acquiescence to become a rich man's mistress was driven by her need to secure material comforts for herself and her old father.

Part of the charm of the story was the narrator's close observations of Otama, Suezō, and Okada's motives and actions. Like the character of Suezō, the man despised by society for his occupation as moneylender, the narrator had "keen powers of observation", in the way he delineated not only three strong characters but believable secondary characters as well. Suezō's suspicious wife Otsune and Otama's father had their own complexities.

Ōgai's marked evocation of a distinct place and culture and the marginal status of women at the time revealed a "not-quite" vanished age, in the sense that his characters' desires, despair, and anguish were just as transparent as the present. In addition, Ōgai's use of animal symbols (a pair of caged birds, a fierce snake, a flock of geese) and references to classical Chinese and Japanese literature had such cunning and grace that they didn't feel like literary devices at all but the very essence of the story, like fire to the brazier.

In her mortification there was very little hatred for the world or for people. If one were to ask exactly what in fact she resented, one would have to answer that it was her own fate. Through no fault of her own she was made to suffer persecution, and this was what she found so painful. When she was deceived and abandoned by the police officer, she had felt this mortification, and recently, when she realized that she must become a mistress, she experienced it again. Now she learned that she was not only a mistress but the mistress of a despised moneylender, and her despair, which had been ground smooth between the teeth of time and washed of its color in the waters of resignation, assumed once more in her heart its stark outline.

The unnamed narrator was a voice of kindness. His large sympathy for the fates of Otama and his friend Okada was unmistakable, relating their stories with penetrating understanding, even affecting a degree of respect and love for the two characters. He later revealed his storytelling method as a play on two perspectives: "Just as two images combine in a stereoscope to form a single picture, so the events I observed earlier and those that were described to me later have been fitted together to make this story of mine."

February marked the 150th year of Ōgai's birth. He was one of the exemplary prewar Japanese writers of national stature, and The Wild Goose (Gan), published serially in 1911-13, was his most esteemed work. Translator Burton Watson mentioned in his thorough introduction that the original title Gan could mean both the singular and plural words, hence the two distinct English titles. I have also read the earlier 1959 translation, The Wild Geese, by Kingo Ochiai and Sanford Goldstein. This full translation by Watson contains endorsements from Edwin McClellan and Edward Seidensticker, two powerhouse Japanese translators, so that should count for something. Indeed this version was quite beautiful. ( )
2 vote Rise | Apr 10, 2012 |
Ōgai is often mentioned as one of the pre-eminent Meiji authors alongside Natsume Sōseki. If that's truly the case then The Wild Geese doesn't do him justice as it's not a patch on Sōseki's best.

Perhaps a lot of this is down to the translation, which isn't the best. For instance, at one point we're told that Otama's father felt that losing his daughter to a scary looking policeman was, "like having her carried off by a monster with a long nose and a red face." That's a very awkward sentence and to anyone in the know (admittedly far from everybody) that quote obviously describes a Tengu. Why the translators didn't just romanise the Japanese word or pick an appropriate substitute like "demon" instead of giving a literal description of a Tengu, I don't know. It seems awfully clumsy and I can't believe that's how it was written originally in the Japanese. There are other minor issues with the translation - such as the way honorifics are denoted - that do grate; but perhaps this is only noticeable to someone more familiar with Japanese culture. Regardless, it would be nice to see a decent translation one day (I know the translation Tuttle use for Botchan is another awful disservice).

The story itself is fine but feels rather lightweight. Little takes place in the novel, which is fine, but it all feels so inconsequential in a way that the minor events of, say, Sōseki's Sanshirō don't. The characters and story take a while to get going and then it ends quite suddenly. The lack of neat resolution may be part of the point but it all feels rather abrupt.

It all left me wondering why Ōgai is thought of in such high regard. Given that few of his works are easily available in translation one would expect what is available to be among his best work; either this translation is very poor or that's simply not the case. ( )
1 vote DRFP | Jan 8, 2012 |
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» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Ogai Moriprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Goldstein, SanfordTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ochiai, KingoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Published in English under the titles The Wild Geese, The Wild Goose, and Gan.
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