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Comrade Loves of the Samurai!

By (September 8, 2016) No Comment

comrade lovesOur book today is Comrade Loves of the Samurai, a pokey little translation by E. Powys Mathers from way back in 1928, when it appeared in a privately-published set of high-class smut called Eastern Love. The set featured two books: selections from the Nanshoku Okagami of the great 17th century Japanese author Saikaku Ihara, here grouped together under the title Comrade Loves of the Samurai, and Songs of the Geisha, a set of court songs of mostly anonymous provenance. In 1972 Tuttle reprinted this little curio in a paperback edition – not, it becomes immediately clear especially in 2016, for its translational value, but rather, as was the case with so many old Tuttle paperbacks, for its historical interest.

Scholar Terrence Barrow tries, in his endearingly fustian way, to strike that note in his Introduction:

In Comrade Loves of the Samurai the theme is the homosexual love of samurai for samurai or the love of samurai for page or court boy bent on becoming a samurai. The subject is potentially sordid, and in modern novels is almost invariably so, but to the old Japanese such love among samurai was quite permissible. The sons of samurai families were urged to form homosexual alliances while youth lasted, and often these loves matured into lifelong companionships.

He doesn’t draw the obvious parallels between such a societal set-up and that of other warrior cultures in history (ancient Greece springs right to mind; Barrow’s paragraph here describes it down to the last loin cloth); that kind of meta-analysis would be well above the pay grade of anything with a title as pandering as Eastern Love. And as charming – in its own way – as this little volume is, it has to be admitted that Mathers’ translation is every bit as kitschy and condescending as Barrow’s introduction. In the grand old tradition of Arthur Waley, Mathers snips and rounds and shapes things as he sees fit, importing an naughty-Edwardian sensibility to a work that, I strongly suspect, is completely free of it in the original. The little editorial asides Saikaku Ihara puts in the mouths of some of his characters, for instance, comes across in Mathers as more strident than sarcastic:

Male love is essentially different from the ordinary love of a man and a woman; and that is why a Prince, even when he has married a beautiful Princess, cannot forget his pages. Woman is a creature of absolutely no importance; but sincere pederastic love is true love.

But the stories in this volume are fascinating even so, especially in the book’s first half, the bits and pieces cobbled together about the boisterous ephebophilia of the samurai class. And peeking out in between the heavy-breathing drama of those bits and pieces are some of the lovely little details of daily life that strike a tone and give and access that’s not quite found anywhere else in 17th century Japanese literature:

There was a little shop in the street of the Yanaka district of Yedo, with a narrow bill hung in the doorway which read: ‘We have a remedy for superfluous hairs. It is equally good for many other ailments.’ Copy-books for students were also sold there; but since these were written by the hand of an old man, no one bought them. A bamboo blind hung between the worn and dirty screens. The trade of that shop was negligible, and the proprietor did not make enough out of it to live by. A graceful pine tree rose above the sloping roof; summer chrysanthemums flourished in the garden, and there was a well of pure water and a pail on the end of a pole. Sometimes birds came and perched on the pail.

Saikaku Ihara was an enigmatic, manic, and strangely appealing figure, a writer who hasn’tlucy reads about comrade loves received anything like his due in English translation. There’ve been no Penguin Classics of his major works (of which, I’d argue, the Nanshoku Okagami is the greatest in its full, weird, raunchy, unexpurgated amplitude), and even The Great Mirror of Male Love had to wait until Paul Schalow’s full 1990 translation to finally get a brief moment in the sun. But the 21st century English-speaking world is more ready for this author than any previous age has been, even his own – so I can always hope to see a big gorgeous Collected Works someday …