Twelve Views from the Distance
translated by Jeffrey Angles
University of Minnesota Press, 2012
One of Japan’s most prominent poets, Mutsuo Takahashi knows how to make beauty from suffering. What skill could be more urgently necessary now? How lucky that this book, originally published in 1970, has at last been translated by Jeffrey Angles in language that is as accurate as it is gorgeous.
Raised in poverty by day laborers, Takahashi appears to be one of those rare persons able to use every misery as fuel for insight. The twelve chapters of this book are indeed “twelve views”, or angles, and the perspective gained thus of violence, sexuality and rural Japan is complex and unflinching.
“I have been loved by many different spirits,” Takahashi writes. This book preserves an understanding of “places outside the world we cannot see with eyes alone” that seems to have been eradicated in modern Japan as surely as the rivers have been lined with cement. “Spirituality” is what it usually gets called but it is a spirituality devoid of wishfulness and precise as cartography. The only other book I’ve found that conveys this level of (how to say it?) rural Japanese spiritual acumen is Michiko Ishimure’s Lake of Heaven.
Of the twelve views, the view of sexuality is certain to grab one’s attention. After all, Mutsuo Takahashi was Yukio Mishima’s lover and confidante. (You are also unlikely to find another truly compelling literary depiction of sex with chickens.)
Besides the understanding of “communities outside the world”, what I find most stunning about the book is its profound understanding of violence. After describing a beating at the hands of his mother, Takahashi writes, “It sounds strange to say this, but when adults behave violently toward children, they always seem much sadder than the children they mistreat. Children do not fail to notice that, even as they tremble in fear.”
Justly lauded for his translations of Tada Chimako and other Japanese poets, Jeffrey Angles is able to render Mutsuo Takahashi’s swirling, image-saturated poetic prose is English that is both clear and full of emotion. Indispensable for anyone interested in Japanese literature, rural Japan, or the lives of gay men, this book deserves to be widely read for its profound understanding of the unseen world, the nature of violence, and the transformation of suffering.