A few weeks ago, John and I went to see the SAMURAI exhibit at the Denver Art Museum. 140 artifacts brought to life over 700 years of elegant Japanese pageantry (from the 1100s through the 1800s) - suits of armor, helmets, weapons, horse regalia, battle gear, even ornate swords used by Japanese women to protect their homes when their samurai husbands were away at war.
I wandered among the iconic objects, remembering my time in Japan in 1965, imagining the samurai men who wore the helmets, the horses whose lungs bellowed beneath gold-gilt and tooled saddles, haunches muscled up beneath brass-meshed armor. The only thing missing was the pulsing blood, flesh and bones that held up these enduring legacies. I stood in awe, thinking of the men and women who crafted and wore each artifact. Legacies, I realized, stand on the shoulders of actual embodied human beings, and they rise up from the landscapes in which they are rooted.
Our finest writers know this. Their characters stand upon the page as if manifested by the gods themselves. In Chapter One of Shusaku Endo's 1998 novel The Samurai, the samurai and his men are chopping firewood with their hatchets in the woods. They wear rustic clothing. Snow pelts their foreheads as they walk along the riverbed back to the marshland. The samurai who leads them knows every detail of the three villages that lay deep within these marshlands, the straw-thatched houses “foul smelling and dark, like cattle sheds.” The samurai’s dwelling is slightly more impressive, containing a stable and several thatched buildings clustered together.
The reader knows these things, smells these things, for they have been embodied on the first few pages by the masterful hand of Shusaku Endo (winner of the prestigious Tanizaki Prize). We read on. The samurai is the eldest son, and he is dismayed by the news that his uncle is waiting for him at his house. His uncle’s face is often flushed crimson with liquor. He has battle scars on his thighs. We learn all these things before the eye of the novel’s narrator turns directly to the samurai and then suddenly, he is there, too - manifested on the page. “Like the peasants who worked this land, the samurai’s eyes were sunken, his cheekbones protruded, and he smelled of the earth. Like the peasants, he was a man of few words who seldom let his emotions rise to the surface, but his heart sank at this news.”
There you have it - flesh and blood, heart and soul. Literary embodiment (at least that's how I use the term). Characters vividly brought to life on the page.
One of my father's favorite photos from my family's time in Japan was of he and Mom reclining on futons in our small hotel room. Rice paper walls separated their sleeping area from where my sister and I slept. They both wear cotton kimonos. Mom flirts with her fan, flashing Dad a seductive knee. When our family returned from Japan in 1965, my mother brought with her a beautiful silk kimono.
I pause writing this and retrieve the kimono from the back of my closet, hanging it on my bookshelf before I continue.
The soft silk hangs in flat folds from the hanger and I am overcome with melancholy. Where is the flesh and blood now? The heart and soul of our mother and father? Perhaps, were Shusaku Endo still alive, he could re-embody them on the page, recreate the sounds of their voices, the sunlight filtering softly through the rice paper walls, Mother's fan stirring the memories.
This is our challenge as writers, yes? To live deeply inside these moments so that our readers might inhabit them too?
A few weeks ago, the Pulitzer Prize Board announced that the recipient of the 2016 Prize in Fiction would be Viet Thanh Nguyen for his debut novel The Sympathizer (Grove Press, New York). "A layered immigrant tale told in the wry, confessional voice of a 'man of two minds' - and two countries, Vietnam and the United States." How would Nguyen manifest this confessional voice on the page, I wondered. It would not be disembodied - that much I knew. I began reading the digital version online.
The novel opens in Saigon, April, 1975. The narrator (a captain in the South Vietnamese army) is describing his day with the General (who trusts him completely).
“In the mornings, before I chauffeured him the short distance to his office, we would breakfast together, parsing dispatches at one end of the teak dining table while his wife oversaw a well-disciplined quartet of children ages eighteen, sixteen, fourteen, and twelve, with one seat empty for the daughter studying in America. Not everyone may have feared the end, but the General sensibly did. A thin man of excellent posture, he was a veteran campaigner whose many medals have been, in his case, genuinely earned. Although he possessed but nine fingers and eight toes, having lost three digits to bullets and shrapnel, only his family and confidants knew about the condition of his left foot…."
You only need one small, unforgettable detail, a writing maestro once told me. I read on.
"At the end of our discussions and meals, I lit the General’s cigarette and he stared into space, forgetting to smoke the Lucky Strike as it slowly consumed itself in his fingers... Madame silenced the tittering children and said, If you wait much longer, we won’t be able to get out. You should ask Claude for a plane now. The General pretended not to hear Madame. She had a mind like an abacus, the spine of a drill instructor, and the body of a virgin even after five children.... She was, in short, the ideal Vietnamese woman...."
I searched online for images of Vietnamese women, but most were tragic photos of war-torn mothers clutching babies.
Then I found this image taken in Saigon in 1968. I imagined the General's wife among these women. I searched for copyright information but found none.
The photo was taken three years after my family was in Japan. I was a sophomore in high school, my sister a senior. Already the bodies of young men we knew from school were being shipped quietly from Vietnam back home to grieving families.
Embodiment. The word takes on new meaning as I reflect.
I think of Endo’s novel and the samurai’s wife Riku. I remember how, on his way back from the woods, the samurai passed by his stables and the stench of straw mingled with horse dung assaulted his nose, how his horses pawed the ground when they heard him coming. I can almost taste the hot sake and the salty cups of miso soup that Riku placed before the samurai and his uncle. Did she have a sword too, I try to recall, a ko-naginata?
This is how human beings rise up from the page. One carefully chosen detail, and then another, and then another - each like the stone in a hand-built wall, each resting on the one laid before it. This is how the masterful writers move from the visions in their hearts to the world on the page. This is how we come to know the samurai and Riku, the General with nine fingers and eight toes, the wife with a body like a virgin and a mind like an abacus. This is how we move between worlds. This is how we cross the borders - real and imaginary.