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Little Pieces: This Side of Japan

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  • Posted December 26, 2010

    Gems of Zen Buddhist Wisdom Encapsulated in Fictional Form

    Michael Hoffman has been based in Japan from a relatively young age, to which he attributes the fact that the stories in Little Pieces are set "not [in] the Japan of the Japanese, not quite the Japan of the non-Japanese, maybe nobody's Japan but mine." However, the Japanese background of these stories is unmistakable, from the descriptions of the urban landscapes (including the forest-parks, set "right in the heart of the city") and weather (with snow seeming to be the most pervasive element) to the inner furnishings of the homes that serve as the setting for each of the six stories. Not only are the outer features Japanese in nature, but so, too, is the spirit and the ethos of the book, which is very much that of Zen Buddhism. The style of "First Snow" bears a close resemblance to magical realism. Snow seems to erase the outside world, so that the whole attention is focused inwards. The attainment of utter serenity is seen as only truly being made possible by the annihilation of the will. The sense of inescapable elation that is possible when one becomes oblivious to one's surroundings is poignantly conveyed, as is the sense of being totally at peace with oneself when devoid of emotion. As the narrator says, "It's only when I open my eyes that I feel cold." The paradoxical tone has elements of grimness, relieved with certain touches of lightness (think of The Incredible Lightness of Being). In "Dragonflies," for example, the perfect death is seen as one that comes upon one unexpectedly, as in by murder, which is "[t]he very opposite of the slow deterioration and lingering agony that's more likely in store for us." In this tale the attraction of young to old, which is, in itself, a contradiction, is ultimately seen as being a resolution, with the leading female character regarding herself, in her slavery to her male partner, as the freest of women. Hoffman's tales upend the conventional, with a woman, who is regarded by her scholar lover as being intellectually inferior, having the gift of foretelling and possessing greater insight into their relationship than he does. An awareness of nature is an underlying theme throughout the tales. When one lacks an awareness of the beauty and transcendent qualities of nature, it is then that one is likely to commit the most heinous of crimes. Throughout the stories one is also made aware of the importance of dreaming, which is seen as being just as, or even more important than, one's waking moments. Central to the stories is the awareness that "[l]ife and death are clear. It's the human heart, the human heart that is murky." The yearning for solitude is reflected in the longing to escape from the "banal assault" of the daily routine The soul is also seen as being incarcerated within the body. "Once free of it, the soul expands to its natural dimensions, which are limitless, limitless." The awareness of life beyond words and books is ironical, in that the conveyance of such an awareness has, inevitably, to be through words that encapsulate all meaning. Hoffman is only too conscious of "[t]he hideous blankness of the mind as it churns in vain to produce the right word, the right phrase." Little Pieces: This Side of Japan is a succinct volume of profound thought, conveyed in fictional form. It should appeal to all those who are interested in the Japanese way of life and thinking.

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