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Book Review: The Wild Geese (Tuttle Classics) by Ogai Mori

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In Japanese literature, two names are often lumped together: Soseki Natsume and Ogai Mori. Both are noted for having written during the fall of the Meiji Era — or what marked the decline of the classical image of Japan as it struggled to accept the new Western influences. They are also two writers who were hugely impacted by the suicide of General Nogi (which was carried out following the death of Emperor Meiji). Soseki’s novel, Kokoro, contains the influence of such, and many of his works have been translated into English. Ogai, however, is not as easily available in translation.

The Wild Geese is the first Ogai novel I’ve read, and it is interesting to notice how he has influenced many later writers, like Tanizaki and Kawabata. The Wild Geese takes place during the fall of the Meiji Era, and involves a young woman who puts her father’s happiness before her own. Thus, to please him, Otama agrees to become a mistress for a usurer — a position she regards with scorn. She ultimately regrets her decision, for not only does she feel humiliated by it, the consequences bring on poverty as well as personal degradation. Ogai describes the internal turmoil well:

“She knew she had degraded herself to the lowest limits, yet she had still sought a kind of spiritual comfort in the unselfishness of her choice.”

Upon learning that her new husband is an usurer, Otama becomes overwhelmed with turmoil, and yet when she wishes to inform her father of her situation, she declines, for she does not want to spoil any of his happiness. She views any sort of bad news as a kind of poison, and “she didn’t want to pour a drop of poison into the sake cup he [her father] held in his hand.”

Interestingly, Otama finally begins to feel her independence for the first time when she chooses to hold her sadness in, showing that even misery can be a possession. It is, after all, her misery. Just as the narrator notes: “Resignation was the mental attitude she had most experienced. And in this direction her mind adjusted itself like a well-oiled machine.”

The reference to The Wild Geese in the title refers to her desire for a life without restriction. Ironically, much of the restriction that befalls her is not only due to the era in which she lives, but her own actions. By not wanting to ruin her father’s happiness, she ultimately ends up destroying her own.

The Wild Geese is told via a very spare style of storytelling, and just like many of Kawabata’s novels, The Wild Geese ends on a metaphor. The symbolism is never forced, but implied. One reviewer on Amazon commented that this is a story about unfairness, and in many ways, this is true, albeit that unfairness is brought on by a number of different circumstances, some of which are brought on by the heroine herself via her lack of any real effort to change it.

Throughout the tale, Ogai reveals Otama’s yearning in a myriad of ways. For example, in one scene he describes the difference between the window shopper who cannot afford whatever is in the window from that of a shoplifter. The narrator distinguishes between the two types of yearning and the restlessness that is involved. The woman who cannot afford the article might revisit the window and gain sadness upon the mere sight of it, even though she knows she will never own it:

“Though she recognizes that she will never be able to buy the article, the renunciation and the desire…often give rise to a not too keen but rather faint and sweetly sad emotion. And she enjoys feeling it.”

Then, when discussing an item she can afford, this desire often brings on “acute pain,” and even restlessness. Otama’s longing is then compared to “that of a woman for an expensive article she admired from a distance, but he now turned into an article she wanted to buy.” The “he” is in reference to a young medical student named Okada. And it is through her desire for him (which is likely her first experience of such) that forces her to examine her own wants — wants that up until this point, she had overlooked.

About Jessica Schneider