'The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches' - Book Review

The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches
by Matsuo Bashō
1966 (translation by Nobuyuki Yuasa)
Penguin Classics, 167 pages

The book includes 40 pages of introduction, 18 pages of notes at the end, and several smaller books by Bashō: The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton, A Visit to the Kashima Shrine, The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel, A Visit to Sarashina Village, and The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

We come to books by strange paths. In this case, The Narrow Road to the Deep North was mentioned in the TV show "Da Vinci's Inquest" by Detective Mick Leary, who was at the time having some trouble with depression and living in his truck at the beach.

The book turns out to be something of a classic of Japanese literature, originally published around 1700. It's a "haibun," which Wikipedia describes as a "literary form originating in Japan, combining prose and haiku." It turns out that the term "haibun" was coined by Bashō, the author of this book - and the creator of the literary form.

Travel was, when Bashō was writing about it, a dangerous past-time. Going a couple hundred miles overland - even on reasonably flat terrain - would take a week or two while subjecting you to crime, disease, bad lodging, and quite possibly a lack of food. And yet, that's not what the book is about at all, nor does it give much sense of that. I don't remember the Mick Leary quote well, but I think he mentioned tranquility and contemplativeness. These are what Bashō was looking for, and what he conveys to us.

To my surprise, the book also taught me a great deal about the origins of Sean Russell's fantasy novels The Initiate Brother and Gatherer of Clouds. This two book series was written in 1991 and 1992, and pretty much immediately became my favourite fantasy ever (Lois McMaster Bujold's Curse of Chalion is also in the running). Unfortunately, the series was almost immediately lost in obscurity despite my love for it ... but I'm getting a bit off topic. In researching The Narrow Road to the Deep North, I just found out now that "Wa" is the oldest known name of Japan - the name Russell used for the country in his series. And the people in the book spend a lot of time composing poetry, including haiku and linked verse. I have to suspect that Russell used The Narrow Road as source material.

Bashō is given to exaggeration: on several occasions he says this or that thing "will last a thousand years" or, more provably wrong, "has lasted one thousand years" (often in the 200 to 500 range). He's not a great travel reporter (and his guide is three hundred years out of date ...). Nevertheless, people still follow his path. And you weren't reading it for that anyway: it has some lovely prose and very good haiku - even if I know I don't spend the time to fully appreciate them.

Wikipedia on "The Narrow Road"