Narrow Road to the Interior: And Other Writings

Matsuo Bashō

Book cover

A pretty enjoyable slim little volume, though not a source of any great inspiration for me. “Narrow Road to the Interior” is a collection of travel journals by the Japanese haiku poet Matsuo Basho. I decided recently that I wanted to read them, but was unsure which translation to choose (there are quite a few). So I went to the Brooklyn Public Library and, as luck would have it, they had four different versions. I read the first section in all of them and this one, by Sam Hamill, was my favorite by far. His translation is plain and fluid, where many of the other translators seem excessively formal and dense. I know nothing about Japanese, but my guess is that Hamill’s is a looser translation geared more toward capturing the spirit of the words than their literal meanings. (This seems to me especially important in the notoriously difficult task of translating haiku.)

If you like haiku and Basho (I do, though my favorite haiku poet is Issa), this book is worth a read. It is mostly a relatively straightforward account of places he went and people he met, including haiku that he composed on the journeys. Here is my favorite from the book:

The oak’s nobility–
indifferent to flowers–
or so it appears.

Part of the reason that I decided to read this volume now is that autumn seems to be the most important seasonal mode for haiku (and it also happens to be my favorite season). It was nice to read Basho’s haiku alongside descriptions of the times and places in which he wrote them, but the strongest impression that I took away from the book was Basho’s deep awareness of the history of the world around him. Nearly everywhere he goes, there is some shrine, grave, temple, or battlefield that he wants to visit, often because he knows about it from poems he has studied. I would very much be interested to know the extent to which Basho is special in this regard, or whether this rich sense of history and place was fairly commonplace in Japan during this era. It’s quite moving to me, and I think I would love to read something similar about America.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars