Monday, March 23, 2009

36 Views of Mount Fuji

What I love about Hokusai’s series of woodcuts titled '36 Views of Mount Fuji’ is that there are actually 46 of them. The master loved the series so much that even after the 36, he kept making more of them.

Professor Cathy Davidson has titled her book after those woodcuts. The book is a series of vignettes about her 4 different trips to Japan, the first one in 1980, staying and teaching English to young women in a Japan university.

If you travel to enough places, you will surely end up in places that don’t live up to their reputations. For some people, Paris won’t quite be Paris. When it comes to countries like Japan that are a bit more inscrutable for passing outsiders, a book like 36 Views of Mount Fuji almost beats going to Japan. In many ways, reading this book is better than even a week spent visiting Japan, though neither should be missed.

In my current thinking, I am beginning to believe that an author’s vulnerability adds considerably to the quality of a book. Our stereotypes of successful university professors are of people who have everything under control at all times. However, personal tragedies occur while she and her husband are spending a year teaching in Japan, and she writes about those experiences candidly.

After being floored by the affection and sympathy she and her husband were shown after a family death, she begins to wonder what happened to the ‘rules’ that govern everything in Japan. She writes, “Rules are very important to us,” Professor Sano says, smiling. “But sometimes foreigners don’t understand that we have rules for how to break the rules too.”

Cathy Davidson’s keen observations and vast background knowledge means that we vicariously participate in rituals, college classroom discussions, communal baths and temple visits. As readers we share her enjoyment when she gets included and feel her disappointment when she gets shut out because to an extent, she will always be a stranger.

This graceful and rich book, full of emotional empathy and apparent contradictions gives us an access to the people of Japan that we simply wouldn’t have even if we spent days staying at a hotel in Tokyo or Kyoto and wandering about the sights.

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