Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings, written in Japanese by Matsuo Basho and translated by Sam Hamill, is published by Shambala Classics. Matsuo Basho is famous for reinventing the haiku and imbuing it with true qualities of simplicity and natural beauty. This book is a beautiful haibun that chronicles Basho’s travels to the northern parts of Japan in late 17th century. Haibun is a form of writing that combines haiku and prose. Essentially, Narrow Road to the Interior or Oku no Hosomichi is a travelogue wherein Basho beautifully pens down his thoughts and journeys using both prose and haiku. The haikus often remark on particular incidents or scenes that Basho found memorable.
Read more about haibun here.
The travelogue begins with these inviting lines,
The moon and sun are eternal travelers. Even the years wander on. A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.
Such an alluring beginning immediately pulls the reader in and reflect on the idea of journey itself.
Replete with intertextual references from among the poets that Basho looked up to such as the Chinese Tang poets, Tu Fu and Li Po, and the wandering Japanese monk poet, Saigyo,
Narrow Road to the Interior is finely composed with the myriad haikus that can make the readers immediately visualise the scene described and evoke their senses.
This is one example:
Sweep the garden-
All kindnesses falling
willow leaves repay
Across a dark sea,
the distant cries of wild ducks
And faintly, traces of white.
There are many more such gems scattered throughout the travelogue which makes reading this piece such a delight! It was as if you were Basho’s travelling companion witnessing the scene yourself and immersed wholly in it.
The other writings that are included in this book are his writings about his other travels such as The Knapsack Notebook, Travelogue of Weather -Beaten Bones and Sarashina Travelogue. These writings are also in the form of haibun. Apart from these writings, the book also has a collection of Basho’s best haiku accompanied with the Japanese version of each haiku, written in the Roman script.
The translator, Sam Hamill, has also provided an in depth introduction that traces the development of the haiku and the qualities essential to its creation such as the makura kotoba or the pillow word or the kireji which is the cutting word of a haiku. The introduction also gives a detailed biography of Basho himself.
Sam Hamill also ends with an equally enriching afterword that further explores Basho’s travel, health and his final hours.
Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings is a refined travel diary that strikes your soul with its beautiful prose and even more evocative haiku.
Get ready to submerge yourself in its magnificent and subtle beauty that no words in this review can wholly capture.