What I’m Reading Now

Of all the books that I currently have on my bedside table (and it is a considerable pile) the most unusual is probably In Heaven’s River, by Julian Daizan Roshi and Sumiko Hayashi. It is a tribute to the life of Enku, a mountain monk or yamabushi who lived in Japan in the 17th century, and who left 120,000 carvings of the Buddha, and more than a thousand poems.
The book combines beautiful photos of the carvings, some of which are enormous and elaborate, others small and deceptively simple, with one hundred poems presented in the original Japanese, transliterated and then translated. Even though Japanese is so different from English the translations do convey the range and immediacy of the poems together with a depth and intensity derived partly from the slippage between subject and object; the sense that the grammatical function of each word is not fixed but shifting, allowing for alternative readings of each short verse. The writings and the carvings trace Enku’s route through the mountains, which was both topological and spiritual. The carvings were left in many places, from mountain temples to caves, or villages, and thus the book also provides a fascinating glimpse into this way of life,which is so different from that of contemporary Western society. He lived on the mountains or in caves, coming to the point of starvation at least once, but freely giving his art wherever he went. Now he is possibly the most famous sculptor in Japan.
It is this last point that made me reflect, as a writer caught up in the contemporary publishing world. It is so focused on sales and profits, that books come and go leaving few traces. Apparently out of all the fiction published in this country, twelve books dominate the market each year. I would be hard put to it to name twelve books that were published last year, and I read all the time. So what the publishing industry has created, like the rest of the commercial art world, is a kind of ephemerality in which books are like waste paper, rapidly forgotten. What Enku achieved by freely giving his work, is a kind of immortality.