THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH AND OTHER TRAVEL SKETCHES by Matsuo Basho (translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa)

When I picked up this book, I was expecting calm and quiet contemplations of natural beauty. What a narrow-minded stereotype! While there is a surface calm, Basho deals with some very intense emotions. I actually found many of the sketches rather dark and disturbing. One incident with an infant in the first sketch is downright horrific and continues to haunt me. Basho certainly achieves a kind of peace but it isn’t free, easy or superficially pretty.

That all being said, the poems drizzled throughout the sketches are almost incandescently beautiful. Basho was one of the greats, no doubt about it. This is one of my favorites from the book:
“Still alive I am
At the end of a long dream
On my journey,
Fall of an autumn day.”
We hear a great deal about doing more with less. Sometimes I think it becomes a tired cliche. Well, Basho is the real deal. The amount he manages to pack into these short lines is mind-blowing.
Not knowing any Japanese, I can’t speak to the accuracy of Yuasa’s translation but it certainly read wonderfully. My only real criticism isn’t of the writing but the grouping in this particular volume. I’m not sure but I don’t think Basho meant these to be read all together. Reading the book from start to finish, the sketches lose some of their power. I would urge new readers to pick a sketch at random, read it then take a break. Later, pick and read another one at random. That’s how I plan to handle re-reads. Highly recommended book. Just don’t expect some serene stereotype of Asian literature.

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