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Mori Ōgai: 雁 (The Wild Geese)

Mori Ōgai’s best-known novel is a love story that could only have been written by a Japanese writer. The obvious comparison in that respect is with Yasunari Kawabata. Simply put, as with Kawabata, at least part of this novel is what is not said than rather what is said. This is rather a Japanese approach and Westerners do not always get it. However, it does work and this book has done well in the West as well as in Japan.

The story is narrated by an unnamed narrator. He is a student in Tokyo and lives in a boarding house. At the time of telling his story, the boarding house had burned done and he had lost all of his possessions. However, the tale he is telling occurred a year previously. One of his fellow students was a young man called Okada. Okada was tall, thin, handsome and powerfully built. He was a rower. He did what he had to do but he was not a keen student. He liked to relax, going for walks, browsing in second-hand bookshops and reading classical Chinese literature. Indeed, for much of this book he seems to be reading Kimpeibai, which we know as The Golden Lotus, a sixteenth century Chinese novel which I can thoroughly recommend. He is a man of regular habits. Indeed, the narrator gets to know him more bumping into him in the same second-hand bookshops they go to rather than in the boarding-house. On his return from his evening walk, he has been seeing a young woman returning from the public baths to her house. They do not speak to one another but clearly are both aware of one another. Okada is clearly attracted to her.

In the boarding house, there are a few servants who run errands for the students for a small fee. One of them, Suezo, who is always elegantly dressed, has branched out into money-lending to the students who are, of course, always broke. Indeed, he has done so well at it, that he has made a lot of money and even managed to open a branch office. He is married with children but tired of his wife, whom he finds boring and ugly. One day, while out, he hears someone playing the samisen. On investigation, he finds out that she is Otama, daughter of a poor sweet seller. Her mother is dead and she lives in a run-down house with her father, to whom she is devoted. He later learns that she had met a policeman who had married her and come to live with her and her father. However, the policeman’s wife turned up. Neither Otama nor her father had checked the marriage documents and the policeman leaves, leaving father and daughter to rue their loss. The father is broke and the pair have little to live on. Suezo is so taken with her that, through a broker, he offers to set up Otama in a house of her own and be his mistress. After negotiation, it is agreed that he will not only set up Otama in a house of her own but also her father in one of his own, with a small income for both. Suezo agrees and Otama and her father are fairly happy with the arrangement, not least because the father at last has comfortable surroundings. There are problems. Otama is reluctant to leave the house to visit her father, in case Suezo visits, which he does frequently. Suezo’s wife, who is by no means stupid, gradually realises what is going on and then who Otama is and is naturally unhappy about the situation. When Otama finds out that Suezo is not a rich businessman as she thought but a usurer, who is not liked in the neighbourhood, she has second thoughts.

Of course, we have guessed by now that Otama is the woman that Okada has seen every day, returning from the baths. Gradually, they become more familiar, smiling at each other as they pass. We learn that Okada is attracted to Otama and vice versa. However, neither makes a move. One day, a snake manages to get into her house and is after a couple of linnets that she has in a cage in the window. Okada is passing and rushes to the rescue and, with the help of another passer-by, kills the snake an saves the birds. However, Otama is out at the time and only her maid is there. She plans to thank Okada.

This is a fairly low-key novel but one that works very well as we follow the love story of the couple who seem too shy to meet properly. All of this is compared with Suezo and his selfish, philandering ways and Otama’s policeman. It is a beautifully told story of gentle love that would probably have not succeeded in the West but does so in Japan.

Publishing history

First published in 1915 by Momiyama Shoten
First English translation by Charles Tuttle in 1959