Ishimure Michiko, Lake of Heaven
Translated by Bruce Allen
Lexington Books, 2008
At a time when whole ways of life are being lost, entire worlds, writers like Ishimure Michiko are doing what they can to secret those worlds away in books. This book, which hasn't garnered nearly the attention it merits, is a secret storehouse, hidden in plain sight at Amazon.com.
Lake of Heaven is a book-length account of a young man's vision when he carries his grandfather's ashes back to his grandfather's village, which lies now beneath a manmade lake. A terrific amount of information about Japan's indigenous spirituality is tucked away in these chapters, a wealth I've not found anywhere else.
The book is a demanding one, with its own peculiar rhythm, and it follows few of the conventional rules of modern fiction. The protagonist, Masahiko, is the target of a vision. He is the vehicle of that vision -- and he's not going to get a word in edgewise except to meekly agree. In this book Tokyo is all bad and the village all good. Tradition is all wise and modernity straightforwardly a curse.
Despite my arguments -- with a book that brooked no disagreement -- the best proof of its effectiveness and strange power is that, when the book describes a ritual, painstakingly, over many pages, it seems that the reader, too, takes part in it and returns also to a world that has been renewed and reconnected.
Ben Okri's The Famished Road is the only other novel I've read which attempts, like this one, to show, and speak from, the indivisibility of the visible and spirit worlds. To have the chance to share this kind of vision is thus a rare honor.
Ishimure Michiko, in the course of her long life, has written a great number of books, almost none of which are available in English. May this be the first of many to be brought forth!