Tuesday 31 March 2020

Review by Thilsana Gias of "A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees" by Yoshida Kenkō, trans. Meredith McKinney

A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees is a short selection of essays taken from Yoshida Kenkō's longer collection called Tsurezuregusa, or Essays in Idleness

Kenkō (c.1283 - c.1352) was a Japanese monk who wrote in the zuihitsu (follow the brush) stream-of-consciousness style, which was often used to create loosely connected personal essays reflecting on the ephemeral aspects of life.

Now, you might be wondering, "What could I possibly have in common with a medieval monk?"

Well, as we now live in times of self-isolation and social distancing, who better to relate to than the introspective Japanese monk?

Whilst monks are typically seen as recluses who are far removed from society in every aspect, what I have learnt from Kenkō is that the musings of monks are still very much about people, society and the connections we can forge through finding the same sparks of inspiration. Kenkō himself reflects on this by saying, "It is a most wonderful comfort to sit alone beneath a lamp, book spread before you, and commune with someone from the past whom you have never met." He then goes on to admire "scholars of former times"  whose "moving" works date to around 6th century - 4th century BC ... leaving us with a rather cosy picture of a monk happily settling down to discuss his favourite authors in the same way that you or I might. 

What's particularly interesting about this concept is that Kenkō reinforces the age-old idea that words transcend space and time. In fact, you almost get a sense that you're physically holding generations of human inspiration in your hands, when you listen to him speak about what people of former times found beautiful or captivating:

"Should we look at the spring blossoms only in full flower, or the moon only when cloudless and clear?"

"Could poems on the themes of 'Going to view the blossoms to find them already fallen' or 'Written when I was prevented from going to see the flowers' be deemed inferior to 'On seeing the blossoms'?"

"It is natural human feeling to yearn over the falling blossoms and the setting moon - yet some, it seems, are so insensitive that they will declare that since this branch and that have already shed their flowers, there is nothing worth seeing any longer." 

Kenkō's vivid imagery gives us moving glimpses of what humanity was and still is. He chooses to discuss the "spring blossoms" and "setting moon" -  things that are unchanging with time, making his essays read like conversation starters with us. He paints pictures of the smallest striking moments and decides to share them with none other than your good self. 

Now, it is easy to feel intimidated by such grand portrayals of nature and mankind. Those of you who were initially wondering "What could I possibly have in common with a medieval monk?" may now be thinking "How could I possibly relate to someone as cool as this monk?"

Fear not.

Kenkō very clearly says: "No-one could be less enviable than a monk. Sei Shōnagon wrote that people treat them like unfeeling lumps of wood, and this is perfectly true." I challenge you to find anything more relatable than that.

About the reviewer
Thilsana Gias is an MA Creative Writing graduate from the University of Leicester. Her favourite Shakespeare play is Macbeth. She is an English tutor and will train to teach Secondary School English soon. She's also hoping she'll finish re-working her dissertation into a publishable piece of writing.

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