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Sunday, June 22, 2008

An impressionable connoisseur of cultures


By PAUL McCARTHY
TRAVELS IN THE EAST by Donald Richie, with a foreword by Stephen Mansfield. Berkeley, California: Stone Bridge Press, 2007, 180 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Donald Richie continues to write learnedly, wittily and insightfully about Japan, of whose culture he is one of the world's greatest interpreters. Readers of The Japan Times will know that he is also a devoted traveler (not a tourist), especially in other parts of Asia.

This collection of travel essays is partly made up of pieces that have appeared in such venues as The New York Times, The Partisan Review, Newsweek as well as this newspaper, Richie's journalistic home. The range is extensive in both space and time.

"East" here means anyplace between Egypt and Japan. The visits take place between 1963 (Ryoanji in Kyoto) and 2007 (Burma). What ties the 22 essays together is Richie's technique, which I would describe as a blend of keen personal observation, selective literary allusion, and wry personal/philosophical reflection. The same sensibility that was at work in the early "The Inland Sea" and the later "Different People" permeates this collection as well.

Sailing up the Nile to see the ruins at Philae, Luxor, Karnak, Richie reads Flaubert, noting what has changed (whole temple complexes moved to new locations by UNESCO) and what has not (barbers, dogs, children). He feels awe tinged with fear at the Temple of Horus in Edfu and sympathetic amusement at the antics of a little boy who hopefully attaches himself to the traveler's boat, beguiling his captive audience with "Home on the Range" and "Lorelei."

Richie disputes the usual view that ancient Egypt was a death-obsessed culture, suggesting instead that it was love for life that made the Egyptians so elaborately celebrate its ending.

In Mongolia, a land he clearly likes, he contrasts the open, friendly (though aggressive) ways of a crowd with those of nearby countries: "The anonymous circumspection of the Japanese crowd, the impatience of the Chinese, is nowhere to be seen." He meets a young guard at a suburban shopping mall whose winter work in modern Mongolia requires him to dress up in medieval costume, but whose real contemporary life centers on the traditional flocks, horses and yurts (or "ger") of his family's nomadic summers . Richie is sensitive to such ironies, and treats them gently.

There are countries, or at least sites, that he just as clearly does not much care for, Beijing's Forbidden City being one example. He finds the ornateness oppressive, the emphasis on symmetry, abstractions, and ideals unnatural; and he suggests that all this is enforced by chaos welling just beneath the surface: the silence of the Forbidden City covering the cacophony of everyday Chinese life. It is a reaction that I, for one, do not share, but that I have heard from many Japanese, as well as japanological, travelers to China.

Richie has never been a very political writer, but the state of things in Burma stirs him to something like political commentary. While noting the lovely shadowiness of the tree-lined Rangoon streets, and the soft pastels preferred by the Burmese sensibility in contrast to the vivid hues of Thailand next door, he is troubled by the evident problems of that land — even more evident now than when he wrote.

That he should end his essay with an account of puppets and puppeteers, pointing to an unusual moral in the process, is very much in keeping with Richie's appealing blend of the aesthetic and the moral, the public and the personal.



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