Sunday, February 17, 2013

he made slow progress

The Heike is a long historical epic, seven hundred and ten pages in the Tyler version (hardcover, Viking Penguin, 2012), made of twelve books that have been divided into nine to twenty chapters each, two clans going to war over the Japanese sovereignty at a period of time that corresponds roughly to the 1100s in Europe, lots of major characters, masses of minor characters uncounted by myself but they appear so often that there must be several hundred of them; and many are only there long enough to obtain a name, a distinguishing characteristic, and a death, like the young soldier who is so plump and lax that his warrior father comes back to salvage him during a retreat: the son chuffing slowly away from the enemy, the fit father charging off, the father realising what has happened, the father turning back, and both of them perishing. "Although still a young man in his early twenties, Muneyasu was too fat to run even a hundred yards and despite having discarded his equipment he made slow progress." Run away father, he says.

"No," said his father, "my mind is made up." As they waited,
Imai Kanehira bore down on them at the head of fifty howling riders.
Seno-o shot his last arrows,
seven or eight of them, rapidly --
five or six riders fell, stricken,
dead or not, there is no telling --
drew his sword, beheaded his son,
and charged into the enemy,
slashing at every man around him.

Death in the Heike usually strikes a person after the story has explained a set of overwhelming odds, either mobs of enemy soldiers or a series of events that has crushed the character's emotions until they're so distraught and shamed that they whip out a sword and do the necessary. I know this is not unusual in literature, a character suffering, suffering, then dying, but the volume and detail of these deaths in the Heike seems noteworthy, a tapestry of little described deaths summoned together to produce the larger picture of an entire clan's death, like miniature scents in a huge smell, as in the Iliad you have a mass of soldiers dying in their specified ways until finally the atmosphere of destruction swallows the city, that large death the retrospective echo of the smallest, the force of one being pressed down or up the food chain and shoving the elements above or below, one man in the Heike hearing about the deaths of several other men and sinking into anguish, shaving his head and leaping into the depths from a humble sea-going boat -- the repercussions from that death leading to the very last death in the story, the final act of demolition, one corpse, the bulge of deaths dwindling to a solitary dot.

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