The Wild Geese by Ogai Mori

One of the things I missed the most during my blogging hiatus was Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge. Whenever I participated in the past, I discovered books that made my end of year list. Obviously, I could read Japanese literature, of which I’m very fond, all year long, but we all know how it goes, when you’re a mood reader or “magpie reader”, as I call myself, you pick what speaks to you at a certain time and forget everything else. Unfortunately, as the last two years have shown me, it’s not a successful approach to reading. At least not for me. I need to have a few loose plans.

Ogai Mori’s novel is a recent acquisition and since I was keen on reading older Japanese literature, I felt it was a fitting choice for the challenge.

Ogai Mori (1862 – 1922) was an Army Surgeon, novelist, and translator. From 1884 to 1888 he studied medicine in Leipzig, Münich, and Berlin. In Germany he discovered the literature of many European countries and later translated classics like Shakespeare, Schiller, Goethe, Kleist, Rilke, Daudet, Tolstoy and many more into Japanese.

The Wild Geese, (or Wild Goose) is considered his masterpiece. It was serialized between 1911 and 1913 in the Japanese newspaper Subaru and finally published as a book in 1915.

The story is told by an unnamed narrator who is friends with the main protagonist, Okada, a medical student at the university in Tokyo. They both live in a boarding house for medical students. The story is set in 1880, during the Meiji era, a time, when Tokyo was no longer called Edo but wasn’t yet the Tokyo we know now.

Otama is a young woman who is very beautiful but also very poor. She and her father who raised her as a single parent are very close. There isn’t anything she wouldn’t do for him. When her marriage to an influential man is annulled, she accepts the position as concubine of a rich usurer. This deal allows her father to live comfortably in a very beautiful house, surrounded by nature. Otama herself lives in a side street in Tokyo with a young maid. She has no contact to people as they all avoid and ostracize her. One day she sees Okada from her window and they both feel a strong attraction. Will Otama be able to break free? If you’d like to find out, you’ll have to read the novel.

The Wild Goose is as subtle as it is beautiful. I liked it very much. It’s rich in detailed descriptions of the culture and customs of the time. Flora and fauna play important, often symbolic roles in this story. Throughout the novel we find descriptions of nature that reinforce the mood and the themes of the novel. One of the most powerful examples of nature descriptions was the episode of the wild geese which takes place towards the end of the novel. I was wondering from the beginning why Ogai Mori chose this title as it didn’t seem to make sense. When it was finally revealed, it was quite shattering.

While Mori Ogai is excellent at describing nature, he is also a very fine psychologist and a keen observer of relationships. The friendship between the narrator and Okada, and the relationship between Otama and her father a beautifully rendered.

This book is set during a time when the Japanese society was undergoing profound changes. It doesn’t look like things were changing for women though. To read about Otama is quite upsetting. She has the misfortune of being poor but beautiful which attracts powerful men who don’t have any intention of getting married to her and don’t care that this pushes her to the fringes of society. She might be the mistress in her own home, but as soon as she leaves the house, she’s an outcast.

What impressed me the most, is how immersive this story was. Reading it felt like making a trip to a distant place and time. The imagery, themes, and story are so haunting, I don’t think I’ll forget them any day soon.

I didn’t read the English, but the German translation of this book, which seemed well done. It was published by Manesse in their Bibliothek der Weltliteratur series. If you know the series, you know how beautiful and luxurious these small books are.

This post is a contribution to Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 6