The dwindling bookshelves

2014-10-20 00:00

ON reading that Australian writer Richard Flanagan had won the Man Booker Prize with The Narrow Road to the Deep North, I popped into a branch of Exclusive Books to see if they had a copy — it was published back in June. No luck.

However, on the shelves, I did unexpectedly see copies of the book from which Flanagan has borrowed his title — The Narrow Road to the Deep North by the 17th-century Japanese poet Matsuo Bashõ.

Flanagan’s novel is set against the backdrop of the Thai-Burma Death Railway of World War 2 and based, in part, on the experiences of his father who died aged 98 on the day Flanagan finished writing the book.

Although apparently referenced in Flanagan’s novel, Bashõ’s book is a travel journal, and one of a rather unusual kind; a blend of prose and poetry recording his journey to the north of Japan in 1689.

The poems take the form of haiku. Bashõ (1644-1694) is generally regarded as the first master if not the inventor of the haiku, the three-line, 17-syllable (five-seven-five) poetic form which is about as short as you can get before tipping into silence.

T.S. Eliot described poetry as “writing with a lot of silence on the page” and you don’t get much more silence on a page than with a haiku. Take Bashõ’s most famous one: “the old pond/a frog jumps in/the sound of the water”. Silence is the natural consequence of the action in the poem.

Haiku — the word, derived from hokku, means “play verse” — already existed but as the introductory verse to longer poems. They gradually acquired a life of their own and became recognised as a stand-alone poetic form. Bashõ played a key role in this transformation and thus became one of the giants of world literature.

Incidentally, Bashõ was a pen name. By 1681, he had built up a following of fellow poets and students, and they built a small house for him on the outskirts of Edo (modern-day Tokyo). He was given a banana tree by one of his supporters to plant in his garden. He became much attached to the tree which in Japanese is known as “Bashõ” and from it he took his pseudonym.

In 1684, Bashõ began the first of several major journeys on foot which he chronicled in travel journals or sketches: The Records of a Weather Exposed Skeleton, The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel and the most famous,The Narrow Road to the Deep North. All three are to be found in the latest Penguin reprint of the 1966 translation by Nobuyuki Yuasa.

As in Flanagan’s Booker winner, the subject of war also features on Bashõ’s narrow road. After visiting a famous 12th-century battlefield, Bashõ wrote: “summer grass/all that remains/of warriors’ dreams.” On another occasion, at the shrine of a famous warrior, “so pitiful/under the helmet,/a cricket”.

That finding Bashõ’s book on Exclusive’s shelves should be a surprise was the result of the ever-dwindling choice in the country’s leading chain bookstore. It was an unexpected sighting.

Books are “product” in today’s jargon and so the shelves are populated by what (hopefully) sells. That, apart from a diminutive “classics” section bulked up with Jane Austen, means current product. Rarely do you find back titles of authors despite them all being in print overseas. Think Richard Ford or John Updike. Not Lee Child or Jodi Picoult. No wonder serious readers, along with everyone else, are resorting to online book buying.

Exclusives, in common with all traditional bookshops worldwide, is battling the likes of Amazon, and locally Kalahari and Loot.

In a classic example of a snake eating its own tail, the Exclusive website offers books for sale at comparable prices to its competitor South African shopping sites while adhering to the more expensive recommended retail price in its solid-state stores.

The other problem that both seller and buyer in South Africa have to contend with is the high price of books, thanks to the current rate of the rand to the pound. Buying a fiction paperback off the shelf will see you shelling out nearly R200. Book shops and their selection can only shrink further.

In the past, there was lobbying for the government to drop the import duty tax on books. Perhaps the time has come to lobby again. Maybe then I can afford Richard Flanagan’s A Narrow Road to the Deep North when it finally arrives.

In the meantime, I’ll treasure my well-thumbed old Penguin of Bashõ’s original trek.


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