Takaoka’s Travels

Stone Bridge. May 2024. 178p. tr. from Japanese by David Boyd. ISBN 9798988688709. pap. $18.95. F
Shibusawa (1928–87), an expert on the Marquis de Sade and the French surrealists, wrote only this one novel in his lifetime, depicting a world where the usual rules have been upended. It won Japan’s Yomiuri Prize in 1987 and has since become a touchstone of Japanese counterculture. In the ninth century, a Japanese prince-turned-monk sets off with companions on a journey to Hindustan (India), the center of Buddhism. As the journey continues, reality implodes. An enslaved woman captivates a dugong, and the animal subsequently joins the journey on land but falls ill. Dying, it thanks them for taking it along. The animal reappears later near Sinhala (Sri Lanka) and greets the travelers again. There’s also a talking anteater that leads the group to a giant anthill in which a green stone is embedded; the stone turns out to be a bird, waiting to be freed. The travelers are also attacked at sea by a ghost ship, so the prince swallows his treasured pearl to prevent the ship’s wraiths from stealing it and passes out. When he wakes, the pearl is stuck so far down his throat he cannot eat. He’s dying and so retreats to the jungle for tigers to eat him and carry his body inside them on their swim to Hindustan. All this makes for a striking tale that resembles Italo Calvino’s justly praised Invisible Cities without cloning it.
VERDICT An arresting novel that readers will cherish.
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