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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Eccentric wanderer discovers his destiny in Meiji Japan


THE DREAM OF LAFCADIO HEARN, by Roger Pulvers. Kurodahan Press, 2011, 189 pp., $14 (paper)

"Japan," asserts the fictitious character Lafcadio Hearn on page 97, "has chaos at its core. The closer one approaches that core, the deeper one fathoms the world of illusion and warped contradiction. Such a country is begging for citizens such as Yakumo Koizumi, that is, me."

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What kind of egotist would make such outrageous assertions, and why would he be worth reading about?

As Australian novelist, playwright and theater director Roger Pulvers explains in his introduction, "Hearn was a story reteller of genius, a writer with an instinctive knack of grasping a foreign culture's spirituality, legends, rituals and myths."

Best known for "Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things" and other adoptions of traditional Japanese ghost stories, Irish-Greek author Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) arrived in Japan in 1890, worked at various jobs, including journalism and teaching, and while struggling with a variety of physical ailments managed to produce over a dozen books by the time he died at 54.

Pulvers, a literary scholar whose own odyssey had taken him from the U.S. to Japan, Australia, Europe and back to Japan again, has devoted years to researching Hearn's life and times, and then made the wise decision to eschew a dry, academic approach, bringing Hearn to life in a stimulating, warts-and-all portrayal of the man — often irritating but endearing in a quirky sort of way. Did Hearn's eccentric DNA come from the Irish side of his personality, or the Greek? Considering he scarcely knew either of his parents and traveled constantly before settling down in Japan, it hardly matters.

It's clear that Hearn's fascination with violent and bizarre stories dates from his early adult years while traveling in the U.S. He may have also been influenced by Herbert A. Giles' 1880 English translation of Pu Songling's anthology "Liao Zhai," rendered in English as "Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio." (Hearn had published a short-story collection titled "Some Chinese Ghosts" three years before coming to Japan.)

In Pulvers' view, "Hearn represented no country in an era when authors were seen as conduits for their countries' souls." But rather than identifying himself with Japan, "He ... was prepared to give a voice to any culture that was not associated with Western institutions of church or state."

"The Dream of Lafcadio Hearn" focuses on three stages of Hearn's 14-year sojourn in Japan: Matsue (1890-91); Kobe (1894-95); and Tokyo (1904). The book is structured as a fictitious autobiography narrated in the first person and peppered with memorable characters and lots of lively dialog.

The Hearn portrayed by Pulvers stands out as the archetypal hen na gaijin (an affectionate but now politically incorrect term meaning an eccentric foreigner), a difficult person to like, by turns contentious, self-deprecating and flaky. If not bipolar, he swings from obstinate outspokenness to weirdness, perhaps from a latent anger over his physical handicap — blindness in his left eye caused by an accident in his youth.

"We are a mysterious people," Akira, one of Hearn's students in Matsue, tells him prophetically. "We believe no foreigner can ever understand us. If you realize this and still love us, you will be one of our new gods someday."

But few of his Japanese hosts are so worshipful; Hearn is also the occasional target of pebbles flung at him by mischievous street urchins.

In "Dream," Roger Pulvers has spun a highly readable and enjoyable portrayal of an unconventional man who embraced Japan in a time of transition, and who struggled intellectually and emotionally to come to grips with sweeping change.



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