Matsuo Basho, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”

When Neil and I were in Scotland with his parents earlier this year, we all decided to go for what we thought would be an easy afternoon walk. We hadn’t eaten lunch and were fairly wet after a morning’s expedition down to the river to look for jumping salmon, but we had had a pint which we optimistically thought would tide us over. We set off in pairs, and expected to be no more than an hour or so.

Before long Neil and I found ourselves edging around a steep hill-face, clinging on to the heather for support as the wind began to pick up. We thought his parents would probably turn back when they saw how the path narrowed, but neither of us had any signal on our phones and we couldn’t see them, so we decided to push on and call them when we got to the end. We kept moving, but soon realised that the steep track was indicative of the difficulty of the entire route – the terrain was boggy, and we found ourselves dragging our legs through the deep, sucking mud as the rain began to fall more heavily.

After an hour or so or this kind of walking my breathing started to become ragged, and my muscles turned to jelly – I recognised the signs from my marathon training a couple of years ago, but I had never set out on a run without anything in the tank so had never hit the wall quite like this before. Neil took my hand and guided me through the hills, trying to find our path on our ropey map. We seemed to be walking for hours before finally scrambling down the steep rocks to the road below – I was still struggling to breath, and half-laughing half-crying at the ridiculous sounds I was making. Neil was heroic – completely calm throughout, even though he was worried about his parents (we still couldn’t find any signal). At points he was almost carrying me. Eventually, after about four hours, we reached the point where we thought they might be waiting for us. There were no cars in sight, the rain was thudding down, and the light was beginning to fade. Neil left me next to the village’s wooden notice-board and loped off towards the main road up the hill, in search of the car or signal. I stared down at my feet, trying to ignore the cold, and the creeping fear that he might not come back.

After about twenty minutes of this, a car pulled up next to me – it wasn’t Neil’s parents, but he’d managed to find a lovely Scottish lady at the top of the hill who’d been out checking on her sheep. She thrust a bag of chocolate biscuits into my hands and drove us to the beginning of our walk, where we hoped they would be waiting for us. Again there was no sign of them, and the lady needed to get back to her animals. So we found ourselves standing in the rain once more, trying to work out what our next move should be. Neil was very worried about his mum and dad – we didn’t know how far they’d got on the walk, and knew they’d be so concerned that they hadn’t heard from us – but he didn’t show it. Instead he put me in an abandoned phone-box to try to keep me out of rain and set off once more, trying to find some signal or a sign of the car. I stamped my feet in the puddles at the bottom of the leaking box and tried not to look at the solitary man’s glove which was floating about next to me – always a fairly sinister sight. Eventually I saw head-lights – Neil had found them, and his mum came bursting out of the car to hug me. I think I promptly burst into tears – it had been a very humbling few hours! My body never really lets me down, and I generally like to think of myself as being pretty hardy and independent. It therefore came as a shock to find that I was incapable of looking after myself, and completely reliant on Neil – and also to feel very safe at the same time. I knew he’d look after me, and I also knew I needed him too – quite a heady combination for someone who generally aims for Boudicca rather than Barbara Cartland.

On the way back to our cottage for hot baths and large whiskies, we stopped off at the local YMCA. Neil’s parents had told them we were missing, and they were poised and ready to call mountain rescue if we hadn’t shown up in the next half an hour. Neil and his dad ran in to let them know we were safe, and when Neil got back into the car he handed me a chocolate bar and a copy of “The Narrow Road to the Deep North“, which he’d bought from the YMCA’s reception.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that our copy of this book has a fairly dramatic back-story!

I found the context for Basho’s work, which combines prose and a series of haiku, completely fascinating. In the late seventeenth century he set off on a walk through northern Japan, as a way of trying to combat his melancholy and to reach some kind of poetic truth. It was a very dangerous thing to do – these roads were not walked to pleasure – and the area of northern Japan he decided to explore was essentially synonymous with the wild.

There is an elegant simplicity to Basho’s text – through the prose and poetry he offers a series of vignettes rather than a story – and I understand from Nobuyuki Yuasa’s introduction that the verse would be full of symbolism. To me, as someone reading the text in translation and with an alien ear, the most appealing thing about it is the visual detail rather than the symbolic meaning, which I fear went over my head. I got the sense that this is one of those texts which it is difficult to appreciate fully in another language, but the sentiment is beautiful. I love the image of a man setting out for the wilderness, worlds away from the England which was going through the Glorious Revolution, as a tonic to sadness. The poetry is so vivid that you feel as though you are looking at the scene through Basho’s eyes – until he blinks, and its gone.

Over the darkened sea,

Only the voice of a flying duck

Is visible – in soft white.

He is part of the great, walking, writing tradition – from Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven in search of God to Cheryl Strayed walking through her grief, it is, it seems, a universal impulse. As the postscript says so beautifully, “There are also times when we feel like taking to the road ourselves, seizing the raincoat lying near by, or times when we feel like sitting down till our legs take root, enjoying the scene we picture before our eyes. Such is the beauty of this little book that it can be compared to the pearls which are said to made by the weeping mermaids in the far-off sea.”

Basho 2

Basho portrait by Hokusai (ca 1840)

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