The Chronicles of Lord Asunaro is a curious little volume. In length, perhaps 10,000 words, it is long for a short story but short for a novella. The protagonist, a minor feudal lord in late Tokugawa Japan, was an actual person (apparently: like much else here, it is hard to be sure), his life heavily fictionalized according to the author’s note. While labeled a “tale” or “story”, the narrative in fact lacks much of might conventionally be called a plot.
The book opens with the protagonist’s nameless father on the feudal seat. His realm is at peace, there is no need for feats of arms, and he made his name through a combination of frugality and erudition. His son, the “young lord”, is held in contempt by his father, who considers him “a fool from birth, and lacking all judgement”; his fed-up mother moves with the boy to the domain’s second castle; she dies soon after and the boy is brought up by his nurse. Within the castle, he is known as Lord Someday-soon (or “Asunaro”) due to his being continually told that “someday soon” the realm would pass to him.
Being brought up in complete isolation from the real world, the young lord is floored when, as an adolescent, he once manages to wander outside and encounters “girls”. They, rather than arms or learning, become his “penchant”: throughout his life, he collects women and children.
Nothing much happens: Lord Asunaro goes through his life without major incident and that’s it.
It soon becomes clear, however, that the entire work is laced with irony if not sarcasm. The father thinks his son is a fool, but
In fact, his lordship held a further grudge against his son. He himself had been small from birth and loathed the compulsory practice of martial arts; it had been decided that in combat with his trainer the opponent would always obligingly arrange to lose. But an appraising look at his son told him that for his age the boy was sturdy, robust and tall. What was more, he was popular with those around him, unlike that other spotty little boy had been.
And for one without finer feelings, the young lord (as he continued to be known after his accession) is only one of the daimyos who, en route to regular sojourns in Edo, stops to admire Mount Fuji.
Lord Asunaro’s late father had whiled away the tedious days of these journeys with a selection of sizeable books from his library that he piled into the palanquin, leading his bearers to grumble behind his back at the impossible weight they had to lug, but the young lord was quite the opposite, and looked forward to the journeys with childlike delight. He noted down on a map everything of novelty, interest or fame that he would pass, and made a point of pausing to raise the blinds and investigate them.
Although reportedly resistant to books and learning as a child, Lord Asunaro seems to write quite a lot of poetry, and has a predilection for metaphors of water and the sea. It seems to be that it was only “received wisdom” that Lord Asunaro resisted.
The tone of book, indeed, is one of arch if gentle parody of knightly tales. Sentences such as
Lord though he was in name, not one important task in the governance of the domain ever came his way, despite his having reached maturity…
are redolent of Sir Walter Scott. What we read, of course, is a function of the translation, but there is no reason to think, given the slyness of Meredith McKinney’s prose, that it isn’t there in Kanji Hanawa’s original.
Kanji will also at times drop out of the narrative altogether and make reference to contemporaneous events in Europe. They read is if they might be explanatory additions by the translator, but Kanji is a specialist in 19th-century French literature. The references extend to the literary: in an afterword, Kanji has “Meurseult, the emotionally stunted protagonist of Albert Camus’ novel L’Étranger” and Lord Asunaro appear in the same paragraph, although like everything else in the novel, it is hard to know how seriously to take this.
So, what is this somewhat strange, gentle, layered work? There is no dramatic arc except for a love affair consummated only in three exchanges of poems that punctuate the book at long intervals. That may be the point, of course: Kanji ends the book with