Friday, July 06, 2007

James Bond's poetry lesson

[Tiger Tanaka has been grooming Bondo-san for a difficult mission.]

from You Only Live Twice

Meanwhile, Tiger and Bond sat in the first class dining-room and consumed ‘Hamlets’ – ham omelets – and saké. Tiger was in a lecturing mood. He was determined to correct Bond’s boorish ignorance of Japanese culture. ‘Bondo-san, I wonder if I will ever get you to appreciate the nuances of the Japanese tanka, or of the haiku, which are the classical forms of Japanese verse. Have you ever heard of Bashō, for instance?’

‘No,’ said Bond with polite interest. ‘Who’s he?’

‘Just so,’ said Tiger bitterly. ‘And yet you would think me grossly uneducated if I had never heard of Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, Cervantes, Goethe. And yet Bashō, who lived in the seventeenth century, is the equal of any of them.’

‘What did he write?’

‘He was an itinerant poet. He was particularly at home with the haiku, the verse of seventeen syllables.’ Tiger assumed a contemplative expression. He intonded:

‘In the bitter radish
that bites me, I feel
the autumn wind.
‘Does that not say anything to you? Or this:

‘The butterfly is perfuming
its wings, in the scent
of the orchid.
‘You do not grasp the beauty of that image?’

‘Rather elusive compared to Shakespeare.’

‘In the fisherman’s hut
mingled with dried shrimps
crickets are chirping.’
Tiger looked at him hopefully.

‘Can’t get the hang of that one,’ said Bond apologetically.

‘You do not catch the still-life quality of these verses? The flash of insight into humanity, into nature? Now, do me a favour, Bondo-san. Write a haiku for me yourself. I am sure you could get the hang of it. After all you must have had some education?’

Bond laughed. ‘Mostly in Latin and Greek. All about Caesar and Balbus and so on. Absolutely no help in ordering a cup of coffee in Rome or Athens after I’d left school. And things like trigonometry, which I’ve totally forgotten. But give me a pen and a piece of paper and I’ll have a bash, if you’ll forgive the bad joke.’ Tiger handed them over and Bond put his head in his hands. Finally, after much crossing out and rewriting he said, ‘Tiger, how’s this? It makes just as much sense as old Bashō and it’s much more pithy.’ He read out:

‘You only live twice:
Once when you are born
And once when you look death in the face.’
Tiger clapped his hands softly. He said with real delight, ‘But that is excellent, Bondo-san. Most sincere.’ He took the pen and paper and jotted some ideograms up the page. He shook his head. ‘No, it won’t do in Japanese. You have the wrong number of syllables. But it is a most honourable attempt.’ He looked keenly at Bond. ‘You were perhaps thinking of your mission?’

‘Perhaps,’ said Bond with indifference.

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