Japanese History in a Nutshell

If you must grasp Japanese history in a nutshell, it is useful to envision five hills lined up in a row; five bell curves, if you will.

The first is the period spanning “Kamiyo” to the end of the Heian Period (around 1192). “Kamiyo” means “age of the gods” and is largely a period known through oral legends. Jinmu Tenno, the great-great-great-grandson of Amaterasu, the sun goddess, started from a place called Nakatsu Kuni (literally Middle Earth) and conquered eastward until he united all of known Japan of the time. This supposedly happened in 7th century B.C. He became the first emperor of Japan. Although some records of early Japan can be found in Chinese documents, written history did not begin in Japan until the 7th century A.D. Japan began to “modernize” and build a more structured form of government, based on the bureaucratic system in China, in the late 6th century. The architect of the reform, Prince Shotoku admonished his subjects to preserve “wa” (peace) at all costs, which pretty much suggests that Japanese rulers up to this point were a rather violent bunch. They tried to build a capitol city, in Nara, Fujiwara, and finally Kyoto (794 A.D.). The emperor gradually lost power and his regents ruled the government. The imperial aristocrats took the “wa” business seriously. Killing was deemed a vile and low class vocation. The “kebiishi”, armed law enforcers who patrolled Kyoto, were not even given official ranks in government and called “office-less mandarin”.  As a branch of government, they did not officially exist. The aristocrats dealt with all matters related to violence at arm’s length, which gave rise to a new social class who specialized in the killing business; the samurai.

There are tons of medieval literature dealing with this period. The Tale of Genji, often said to be the world’s oldest novel, is set in the pre-samurai Heian era, and deals mostly with the amorous ways of the aristocracy. Modern fiction involving the first bell curve deal with the decadent decline of the era, such as Kurosawa’s Rashomon and Toyoda’s Portrait of Hell (both of which are based on short stories by Akutagawa Ryunosuke).

The second bell curve began as the first bell curve waned. In 1185, after much romanticized drama and glorified bloodshed, Minamoto Yoritomo, the heir of the Minamoto clan, became the shogun, a position appointed by the emperor. He built his office in Kamakura, 30km south west of modern Yokohama, which became the Kamakura shogunate. The shogun’s office was placed far from Kyoto to avoid imperial influence and the shogunate soon started behaving like the de facto ruling body of Japan. Almost immediately, the shogun became a figurehead and power was held by his regents, the Hojo clan. The imperial aristocracy maintained their influence by marrying their daughters to powerful samurai, thereby reinforcing the legitimacy of the shogun. Eventually, the shogun and his close associates became cultured and foppish. They would read poetry and appreciate incense burning. In the late 13th century, Kublai Klan would make two attempts to invade Japan. The invasions are successfully repelled, but the expenditures sapped at the shogunate’s strength and eventually, this bell curve also waned.

The drama surrounding the rise of Minamoto Yoritomo, and the consequent fall of his rival Taira Kiyomori, is the regular staple and the fundamental template of samurai literature. The decline of this period did not become a source of popular fiction until modern times.

Between 1333 and 1336, as the shogunate fell apart, Emperor Godaigo saw an opportunity to revive the imperial throne and bring power back to the emperor. But times had changed and the old ways of the aristocracy had not. His ambition was met with failure, a schism formed in the imperial throne, the emperor once again became a figurehead, and a new shogun, Ashikaga Takauji, started a new shogunate in the Muromachi district of Kyoto. This was the beginning of the third bell curve, the Muromachi shogunate. Since this shogunate began with the suppression of clans allied with Emperor Godaigo, and supporting an alternate imperial throne, it had more power over the emperor than the previous shogunate. But eventually, as the schism was annulled and the throne united, and aristocrats sought influence through intermarriage with the shogun and his regents, the shogunate once again became cultured and foppish. The 8th shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa was so engaged in the arts, he is credited for creating the Japanese culture that we know today; one of subdued and austere aesthetics. However, he was a total disaster as a politician. He let his wife, Hino Tomiko, get involved with government and fight with his regents over power. The confusion eventually lead to Onin Wars (1467) which snowballed into the Sengoku Period, the Period of the Warring Lords. Japan became a free for all and any one of the regional war lords could gain supremacy over others. Most notably, Hideyoshi who started his life as a peasant farmer boy went on to rule Japan. This mouse-eats-cat situation continued as the bell curve of the Muromachi shogunate waned.

Out of the multitudes of war lords vying for power, Oda Nobunaga eventually became the de facto ruler of Japan. Ashikaga Yoshiaki, the last shogun of the Muromachi era, sent letters to various samurai clans “ordering” them to attack Nobunaga. The war lords complied only as long as it was convenient for them. They saw the edicts as justifications to ally and overthrow Nobunaga. But as Nobunaga destroyed his enemies one by one, the shogun’s edicts became increasingly irrelevant. By the time an official letter arrived from the emperor discharging Yoshiaki from office (1573), the shogun was as powerless as the emperor himself. After the death of Nobunaga (1582), power would shift to Hashiba Hideyoshi (later Toyotomi Hideyoshi), then finally to Tokugawa Ieyasu who established the Tokugawa shogunate in Edo (now Tokyo). This era, between the final waning of the Muromachi shogunate and the rise of the Tokugawa shogunate, by coincidence overlaps with the life of William Shakespeare (1564-1616). This is the era most often depicted in samurai fiction, including James Clavell’s  Shogun and Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress.

The Tokugawa shogunate was established in 1603, but Hideyoshi’s clan would not perish until 1615. This is the beginning of the forth bell curve, the Edo era. The shogun appointed “metsuke” (inspectors) to maintain law and order among commoners and low level samurais, and “oometsuke” (grand inspectors) to suppress rogue action by the regional lords. The first grand inspector was the celebrated ninja Yagyu Munefuyu, brother of the legendary Yagyu Jubei. But as prolonged peace extended over centuries, the grand inspectors stopped sending assassins to keep the lords in line, but switched to subtly changing seating arrangements at official functions to punish the lords for various transgressions. By the time Western gunships arrived in Edo harbor, the shogunate was ill equipped to fend off foreign invasions. But regional lords, particularly the ones whose position in government was low due to fighting on the wrong side against the Tokugawas in the early days, were quietly modernizing their forces. As the Tokugawa shogunate waned, the regional lords would form the backbone of the new Imperial Japanese government.

The prolonged peace of the Edo period resulted in the prosperity of the masses, and for the first time, widespread literacy among the commoners. Wood block printing not only produced beautiful art for mass consumption, but numerous popular books. Kabuki plays, joruri puppet theater, and many forms of stylized story telling, such as kodan and rakugo became popular. Many of these works dealt with the lives of commoners. Others dealt with historical stories.

The end game of the last shogunate, called bakumatsu, is another era often depicted in samurai fiction. The movie Last Samurai with Tom Cruise comes to mind.

Thus comes the fifth bell curve. In 1866, the shogun officially gave power back to the emperor. But of course the emperor did not have the means to govern. Even though the shogun was overthrown by an alliance of regional lords, bureaucrats of the shogunate were needed to run the country. This class of shogunate aristocracy had intermarried with the imperial aristocracy over the centuries and had more affinity with the imperial society than the regional lords who put the emperor in power (albeit as a figurehead). The two kinds of samurais would struggle for power while Japan went through rapid modernization, repelled Western colonizers, and started colonizing its Asian neighbors. The problem really surfaced when the military, mostly controlled by regional clans and low level samurai, and the foreign ministry, controlled by imperial aristocracy, could not agree on foreign policy, especially what kind of wars to wage. Japan delved into militarism while the key players wrestled over the steering wheel. The emperor was a figurehead. Tojo became a figurehead. Many layers below them became figureheads of various interests. The mighty Japanese empire went into a tailspin that culminated in the dropping of two atomic bombs.

One of the things General Douglas MacArthur did after the war was to ban the possession of samurai swords permanently. Numerous priceless swords were destroyed. It took a lot of petitioning to get the Americans to understand that some of these swords were irreplaceable art pieces. Japanese citizens would eventually own swords again but the samurai class would never be the same. Land owning gentry had their lands confiscated and an entire social class was systematically destroyed. That was the end of the fifth bell curve.

People speak of “The Last Samurai” as if there was only one. But the age of the samurai ended three times: Once at the end of the Sengoku era, once at the end of the Edo era, and once at the end of WWII. Meanwhile, the Onin Wars is said to be the end of the imperial aristocratic lifestyle. But the strange rivalry between the aristocracy and the samurai continue in different forms. You might say that a sixth bell curve came after WWII when a new democratic Japan rose to the position of an economic giant. But that does not fit with the picture of previous five bell curves of Japanese power. Postwar Japan seems like a new entity. A place where no samurai would ever live.



The name, Okay-hah-zama, almost sounds like an Oriental rendition of the name “OK Corral”. Actually, “oke” means “bucket” and “hazama” can mean “valley” or even “gorge”, thus “Okehazama” would mean “Bucket Valley”. The name implies a geographical pinch point, like Thermopylae. Nobody knows exactly where the battle of Okehazama took place, and debate had raged for centuries on how Oda Nobunaga, with just two thousand troops, managed to defeat Imagawa Yoshimoto’s massive army, said to be anywhere from twenty five thousand to fifty thousand soldiers.

In the aftermath of the battle, the mighty Imagawa fiefdom disintegrated, not in small part because Matsudaira Motoyasu (soon to change his name to Tokugawa Ieyasu) broke away from Imagawa rule and allied with Nobunaga. While Nobunaga gained strength, recovered lost territory, and went on to unite Japan under his banner. It was a true turning point in history.

Nobunaga was only 26 years old at the time, and had newly succeeded his father as the leader of the Oda clan. He had a reputation for eccentricity and was dubbed “the fool”.  By contrast, Yoshimoto was 41 years old, had been the leader of the Imagawa clan since he was 17, came from an old noble family, and was granted the name Yoshimoto from Ashikaga Yoshiharu, the eleventh shogun of the Ashikaga shogunate. Although the power of the shogunate had been dwindling for some time, it was still a great honor that granted him considerable authority.

Following the death of Nobunaga’s father, Imagawa Yoshimoto’s clan had been nibbling away at the territories of the Oda clan for years. Oda fortresses and outposts were falling one by one. The Imagawa clan had taken control of the entire eastern coast of Ise bay. The powerful clan was now ready to make their final move on the Oda clan, crush them once and for all, and clear their way to Kyoto, where Yoshimoto could join forces with the shogun and rebuild the shogunate with himself as regent. In May of 1560, Imagawa Yoshimoto lead his army into Oda territory. The five hundred soldiers defending Marune fortress were the first to be slaughtered. Washizu fortress was the next to fall. The Imagawa army was unstoppable.

Oral historians of the era blamed Yoshimoto’s arrogance and complacency for his defeat. Written records inked decades after the event credit the valor of Nobunaga’s soldiers. Legends and fiction depicts Nobunaga as a tactical genius, which he probably was, but there were great many elements involved. Yoshimoto was confident enough to divide up his army and send them off on independent sorties. There was perhaps more booty to go around that way. He kept only five thousand of his closest men around him, not all of them combat personnel. Nobunaga’s smaller army was agile enough to sneak between Yoshimoto’s divided army and strike directly at the center. And a sudden downpour fortunately masked Nobunaga’s approach, helping his surprise attack.

In spite of the fact we do not know exactly where the battle was fought, exactly how big Yoshimoto’s army was, or exactly how the battle was won, all accounts agree on some curious details. Yoshimoto, who cared very much about his connections to high aristocracy, dyed his teeth black and powdered his face white in the aristocratic fashion, and lead his army on a palanquin instead of on horseback. When Yoshimoto was finally cornered, he struggled with a young soldier named Yoshikatsu and bit off his finger. When his head was presented to Nobunaga, the pale dead finger was still between the nobleman’s blackened teeth.

This all happened in a time when people still believed in magic, ghosts, curses, and gods. Modern writers and historians tend to downplay this element, and even Nobunaga’s contemporaries avoided recording the various rumors and supernatural theories surrounding the miraculous victory.

What would the people of the time thought of Yoshimoto’s defeat? What divine retribution lead to his downfall? What sacrilege did Yoshimoto commit that aligned the gods against him so? What angry spirits, what vengeful ghosts had such a grudge against Lord Yoshimoto?

Remember that Yoshimoto had already conquered all the key fortresses that stood in his way, and he had sent his armies on sorties in search of booty. His forces were set free to rob and rape the villagers and town people. This was probably not the first time such action was taken. And it was because his army was off to pillage the people that Yoshimoto was left open to Nobunaga’s surprise attack. No doubt, in his time, people whispered of the anger of various patron spirits of the villages and townships plundered and destroyed by the Imagawa army. But nobody recorded, in so many words, that angry gods took vengeance on Yoshimoto. It was a frightening thought to put into words. Best not to mention them lest the spirits turn against you.

Instead they recorded the details. Yoshimoto’s dismembered head was delivered to Nobunaga, teeth dyed pretentious black, face powdered foppish white, and his killer’s finger still in his mouth.



Translations of great fiction rarely live up to their originals. Sometimes the failure to do justice to the original work boils down to one word. When a single key word cannot be properly translated into the other language, it can become the stake that kills the work.

Koyashi is a Japanese noun difficult to translate to another language. Its etiological origin is the word that means “to fatten”, koyashi is a “fattener”, therefore it implies nutrition. However, its meaning in actual usage is “fertilizer”. Koyashi is the material that fattens the soil and makes it nutritious to crops. It is also used metaphorically in phrases such as “gei no koyashi” – “fertilizer for art”. “Gei” (芸) can mean any act of art, but usually implies performance art. A “fertilizer for art” is any experience that enriches the performance of the artist, but is usually associated with vice and hedonism. A musician, for example, can claim that his womanizing is simply food for his art, and thereby justify his actions by disguising it as devotion to his craft. “It’s all part of the process”, as they say.

Up until quite recently in history, in most Japanese cities, human excrement was collected from homes and carted away to be mixed with chopped hay and animal manure and fermented into organic fertilizer. An ultimate form of waste recycling, this fertilizer, koyashi, was kneaded into the soil each year to produce a richer harvest and provide sustenance for the consumers from whom the fertilizer came from. Japanese people were quite aware of this cycle. And it is telling that this word was chosen to describe the acts of vile deviance that produced richer performances for the consumption of the public.

The lack of a word equivalent to koyashi in the English language subtracted greatly from the English translation of The Tattooer, a short story by Junichiro Tanizaki. The word used in the translation is “victim”, which is clearly not the same thing. When, at the end of the story, the young woman says to the tattoo artist “You have become my first koyashi,” the tattooer is not just a victim, he is food. His life and blood had been sucked dry by the vampire of his own creation. That is the point of the story.

The story is so short and minimalist, the modern parlance for it would be “flash fiction”. It barely spans three pages in a paperback book. The original story in Japanese, first published in 1910, is written in a style, modern for its time, that became a template for generations, mixing commoner dialect with almost melodic colloquial prose. A prime example of turn-of-the-century Japanese aestheticism, the story is set in the waning days of the Edo period where a talented but sadistic tattoo artist named Seikichi, who loved to torture his willing patrons with his needles, is scheming to create a masterpiece. For that he needs a perfect canvas, a young woman who has not yet fully blossomed.

The title in Japanese is not “The Tattooer” but “Tattoo“. The word for “tattoo” in Japanese is “irezumi”, “ire” meaning “to infuse” and  “sumi” meaning “ink”, it can be written with two characters, each meaning “infuse” and “ink” (入墨). But Tanizaki chooses an alternate, more elaborate way of writing it, one character meaning “pierce” and the other meaning “blue” (刺青). The word possibly comes from the color of traditional tattoo ink which is somewhat bluish or greenish. It makes no grammatical sense to pronounce this combination of characters “irezumi“. This is called “ateji“, a spelling that has nothing to do with the actual pronunciation of the characters, and the ideograms are employed only to convey the meaning. There is no way you will know how to pronounce the word without some kind of assistance if you do not already know how to read it. We do not know, when we first see the title, just two characters on the cover page, why Tanizaki chose to write “piercing blue” instead of “infusing ink”. But those are the two letters that first enter our eyes.

Because of his talent and artistic reputation, Seikichi was never short of customers. But he loved to watch strong men struggle to hide their agony as he employed the most painful techniques to bring out the best effect. He secretly enjoyed seeing them, after being pierced hundreds of times in the most excruciating ways, then soaked in a hot bath to bring out the colors, collapse at his feet, exhausted from pain, unable to move. He would comment on how painful it must have been in dry, mock sympathy. Then he continued to work on them, day after day, for a month, sometimes two, secretly gleeful of their agony. Such was the man who was constantly on the lookout for the perfect girl to be his canvas.

One day he chanced to catch a glimpse of a perfect ankle, and knew immediately that this was the woman he was looking for. He did not see her face, and lost her in the crowd. He searched for her frantically. His ambition turned to obsession. His obsession turned to desire. His desire turned to pain. His pain turned to fire. The fire burned until this man, a genius artist but a sadistic torturer, chanced upon a geisha’s teenage apprentice, and knew immediately that this was the one he sought. He knew it was the same perfect ankle, the same perfect skin, the same perfect toes. He abducted her and lied about his knowledge of the girl’s whereabouts when people asked. Then got to work. He would turn the young girl into a work of art, and that ankle would become his agent to crush the souls of unsuspecting prey, whose juices would further empower his carnivorous creation.

He started by first showing her a scroll, an elaborate painting depicting a legendary Chinese princess who was said to have derived pleasure from watching the torture of innocent victims. Adorned in heavy jewelry and glamorous costume, holding a goblet, she looked over a man chained to a post about to be sacrificed for her pleasure. The languid decadence of the moment was captured vividly. The girl resisted looking at the painting but the tattoo artist insisted that the painting reflected herself. The second scroll he showed her was a painting titled “koyashi“, which showed a woman leaning against a cherry tree in full bloom, whose roots spread over the ground at her feet strewn with bodies of dead men. Perhaps she was a part of the tree itself soaking nutrition from the blood of men. She smiled triumphantly as birds sang around her. Seikichi told the girl that this was her future. The girl begged him to put the horrible painting away, but eventually looked at it, like a woman coerced into sex for the first time, gradually coming around to enjoying it.

He anesthetized the girl and worked all day and all night to inject ink into her skin. He poured his soul into the ink. He worked with great concentration. He held his breath at every entrance of the needle. He exhaled deeply at every extraction. As the girl lay unresponsive, he worked by moonlight and candle light. Black slated rooftops turned frosty blue and slowly changed to a stardust of dew, and white sails of river boats faded in the mist, ever so slowly as night turned to dawn. He whispered as he worked “You shall no longer know fear nor intimidation, for you shall become the greatest beauty of them all. Every man shall drop at your feet, and be reduced to your koyashi.” He painted a picture of a giant spider, its legs extending into her arms and legs; a black and yellow spider, known for its habit of eating the males with which it mated, known as jorogumo, the whore spider.

When she awoke the tattoo was done. She felt the pain of a thousand needles through her skin and moaned as she slowly began to move, the spider rippling on her skin. Her fingers flexed, her brows knitted, her toes twisted as voice left her lips. She awakened to the pain, her initiation. She woke up sharp, and walked by herself to the bath to pour hot water over her searing skin.Her high pitched cries echoed through the house. She emerged from the bath, her wet black hair draped over her naked flesh, and found the tattooer drained. He had injected every last drop of his soul into his art.
“I shall not be afraid any more,” she said, as she pulled her kimono over her shoulders. “I have thrown away my cowardice.”
“Take the scrolls with you,” he said. “They are yours, as is the tattoo.”
There was a powerful glow in the girl’s eyes as she spoke to the artist.
“You have become my first koyashi.”
“Please, I beg of you!” said the artist, “before you go, show me the tattoo one last time!”
She nodded, complied, and dropped her robe. Morning light filled the room, and shone on the glorious tattoo.

And that is the story. Piercing Blue.


NaNoWriMo Helper

Here are some of the NaNoWriMo helpers I posted for last year’s NaNoWriMo contestants.

Last Minute Pantser Cheat Sheet.

Tricks to Overcome Stuckness Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

Getting Stuck At Arguments.

Writing Good Dialogue (1), (2), (3), (4).

Rules for the Second Draft (1), (2), (3).

Editing Tips (1), (2).

Of course every piece of advice is just that, advice. In the end you have to make your own call. I hope these tips will help. Good luck to everyone.

Deep Reading “Bel Canto”

Let’s make it clear right off the bat: This is not a book review. This is an attempt to glean off some lessons about what makes a book good from Ann Patchet’s novel Bel Canto. This book is a New York Times best seller and the winner of the Pen/Faulkner Award, which is a lot more than the majority of us will ever achieve with our novels, so whatever its faults (and there are many) there is definitely something to be learned from this book. Naturally there will be some spoilers, so if you have not read the book, Spoiler Alert.

Go to Amazon, or Goodreads and you will find a healthy mix of good and bad reviews. Here is a part of a good one:

Bel Canto is one of those novels that is good on so many levels, it’s taken me days after finishing it to put my thoughts about the story and the characters into words. This work is as lyrical and dramatic as any opera, and the word “brilliant” isn’t excessive to describe the talent of author, Ann Patchett.

Here is a part of a bad one:

From the get go I felt my heart sink and chapter after chapter I read in disbelief that this was the same book that others gave such accolades. The book rang so false to my ear. The melodrama and overly disgustingly sweet sentimentality was jarring, discomforting and infuriating.
I somehow suspected that Ann Patchett had subcontracted a junior writer from Disney Animation and another burned out writer from Harlequin Romance to come together and churn this out while she joined their ideas and linked them with a very few gorgeous passages. The characters were absolute caricatures with extreme gender and ethnic stereotypes. The emotions and story line were completely illogical and the whole experience left me both angry and depleted.

By every measure, this is a successful book. It sold over a million copies, and its sales are certain to increase once the movie adaptation is released. (It is rumored that a central role will be played by Ken Watanabe, who, one hopes, will finally be able to show his character depth for the Western audience.) It has been translated to over 30 languages. It has won the Orange Prize for fiction and the Pen/Faulkner award for fiction, and was short listed for many others. It has been praised by book critics from around the world. There are over eleven thousand reviews of this novel on Goodreads alone, with a four star average. And most importantly, it has caught the ire of numerous intelligent readers who hate this book with a passion, which is usually a sign that the writer has done something terribly right.

The book is about a terrorist plot gone wrong. A group of terrorists in a Latin American country break into a private opera concert in the hopes of taking the president hostage. It turns out the president stayed home to watch TV. What was intended to be a quick breach-and-grab operation turns into a prolonged hostage crises in which an opera singer, her accompanist, an interpreter, and a hodge-podge mix of multinational dignitaries are kept in the vice president’s mansion. Monotony sets in as the hostage situation stretches on for months and the captors and hostages slowly descend into Stockholm syndrome. The story comes to an abrupt and bloody ending as the SWAT team charges into the compound and eradicates the terrorists along with some inevitable collateral damage.

The story was inspired by the Japanese Embassy hostage crises which happened in Peru in 1996, but the story is only very loosely based on real events and the country is never named. The material could have been used to write a political thriller, instead what Patchett created might be called the polar opposite. The story genre is classified as “magic realism”, which usually means there are no Harry Potters and Vondemorts, and the stage is set on planet Earth, not Arrakis, but you might find something mystical, magical, or fantastical along the way. Therefore, it could insult the sensibilities of people who want a more realistic portrait of human suffering, or a clearer insight into the socioeconomic background of Latin American rebellions, or a clinically accurate depiction of hostage psychology, all of which is a given. Sure enough, most of the complaints about the novel is that it is “unrealistic”. One disappointed reviewer wrote:

It upset me to realize that Patchett was using a piece of Peruvian history with no intention of telling a story of Peru or its political unrest or even including a proper description of the country.

Peru is not even mentioned. In fact, what country the stage happens to be is irrelevant to the plot. This book is not at all about the politics of Latin America. The hostage crises is just an excuse for Patchett to turn the occupied mansion into an isolated capsule, a magical world closed off from the rest of the universe, a Hogwarts in the here and now. You cannot please everyone, and Patchett started off by boldly dismissing a huge segment of the reading public. This novel is not for you, gents. Please find books to your taste elsewhere. Not necessarily a good marketing scheme, but a clear and gutsy writing decision, one that every writer needs to make to some extent.

The novel seems to deliberately defy story writing convention. Anyone who has read a reasonable amount of instructional books on how to write tight, tense, suspenseful novels would immediately see where Bel Canto deviates from the template of “marketable” fiction. There is much telling where there should be more showing and too much showing where the story could be told. Four pages into the first chapter, the story flashbacks to the childhood of one of the hostages instead of focusing on the action involving the terrorists breaking into the house. The novel fits the seven point story structure very badly, if at all. The inciting incident is recognizable, but there is no catalyst, no inflection point, and no obvious climax (The SWAT team bursts in the house a page and a half from the end of the last chapter and finish off everything most unceremoniously). Half way through the book, it is still not clear who the main character is or what he/she wants. The only thing that is clear from the beginning is that this cannot end well. There is much foreshadowing about the deadly outcome, but there are also many spoilers along the way about who will survive. Chapter six begins with these words:

Years later when this period of internment was remembered by the people who were actually there, they saw it in two distinct periods: before the box and after the box.

“He” would remember “this”, “she” would remember “that”, would each give away who will survive. She tells us in the first chapter that the terrorists would not. These giveaways barely serve any purpose other than enhance the ambient mood. Even though it is obvious that many of the characters will eventually die, the author steadfastly refuses to build any suspense around who will come out alive.

If you tried to read this book with any expectation of finding a thriller or a realistic political adventure, you will no doubt be frustrated. It is only when you accept that this is a story set in a magical floating world that the events make any kind of sense. This is a fairy tale without the fairies, a fantasy without the wizards, and characters bounce around aimlessly like balloons in a playpen. Even in the face of death, people find it difficult to understand what they really want. The novel is not realistic because it drops all pretense of realism in order to focus on the core truth of the human existence.

Ann Patchett is a remarkable writer who is not afraid to write bland prose. In fact, if I posted some sections of her work on a writing group in Facebook as my own, it would most likely be diced, sliced, and mutilated. Deceptively slack passages and seemingly careless expositions abound. Maybe the reader should be on Ecstasy to better capture the vibe. The author dedicates the book to her editor, which is understandable because any editor who did not “get” the drifting style of the author would be sorely tempted to tighten up the narrative.

This is the opening sentence of her novel:

When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her. 

Not particularly sharp or mysterious, and the sentences that follow are competent but not exceptional. Many paragraphs follow before even a careful reader detects any profound artistry in the sentences. It is not that the author is incompetent. She is so confident with her craft that she does not care to impress.
And then, nearly half way into the book, it is revealed that two of the terrorists are not young boys but young girls. The hostage negotiator learns of this from the interpreter and is flabbergasted but the interpreter is drifting somewhere else.

“Such a remarkable thing and no one even mentioned it,” Messner said.
“We were all thinking about the new accompanist,” Gen said, his knees feeling looser with every step. Femur, patella, tibia. “We had already forgotten about the girls.”

Who would have thought inserting the Latin names of the bones in one’s legs – femur, patella, tibia – would so vividly express the rhythm of an uncertain gait? Such rare magic of words are thrown in at the least dramatic places almost wastefully. The author does not bother to open the book with a slick line, or to finish it with a particularly memorable one. Nor does she bother to inject powerful words in chapter divisions or inflection points in the story. But she throws in magical sentences when we least expect it, hitting us like sudden death. Even in this, she defies convention.

She also defies common image associations. You do not associate a staid middle-aged Japanese businessman with love, romance, and sex. If this story was written by a Japanese man rather than a Caucasian female, I would have said that the author was delusional, or perhaps that he was projecting his fantasies in his fiction. A rebel boy’s talent is first foreshadowed through his ability to perfectly dice eggplants. An unlikely romance is triggered by an unwelcome confession of unilateral love from a large sweaty Russian, who tells a story about his mother’s treasured book of impressionist paintings. The story is brimming with unlikely pairings.

One reviewer on Goodreads had this to say:

The writing is so well-crafted sentence by sentence that it ends up being somewhat characterless and a little dull in large portions. The prose in Bel Canto almost seemed as if it was written to specifically defy any editorial criticisms. It does this with aplomb, but the problem is that it never takes any risks either.

I disagree. This book takes plenty of risks. Too many by far. It defies our expectations of a novel about terrorists and hostages. It dismissed the entirety of the Latin American audience by saying nothing about Latin America. It ignores the structure of story telling. It gives away the ending. It pairs unconventional imagery. It almost never uses crafty prose at the pinch points. It has practically no action at all. And that is before we even reach the infamous out-of-left-field epilogue. And yet, this is an award winning, critically acclaimed, million selling best seller. Now, let’s try to figure out how a book that defies almost every element of a marketable story can end up being so successful.

If this book teaches us aspiring novelists anything, it is that there is life after James Scott Bell and Joseph Campbell. If you have been indoctrinated to adhere to the “hero’s journey”, the seven point story structure, and pacing the story through “motivation-reaction units”,  you will find this meandering-of-consciousness either a breath of fresh air or an abomination. This book goes against everything we have learned from How-to-Write-a-Marketable-Book instructors. Maybe being tightly plotted, fast moving, and emotionally gripping is not all there is to a book.

Another thing this book teaches us is that we should not be afraid of bad reviews. This book was destined to displease some people. Lots of people. It breaks so many conventions, there is no way it could have avoided bad reviews.

So how does this book work at all? Firstly, what kind of fiction is it? It does not seem to fit any of the seven basic plots (overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, rebirth, rebellion against the one, mystery). It is actually more like an opera than a novel. Eugene Onegin is a dull story if it were not for the music. Patchett herself says she wanted to writes something like an opera. The story matters less than the sounds.

I think it was Richard Corliss who said of the trend of intricately designed other-world movies of the early ’80s, like Alien, Bladerunner, and Dark Crystal that “texture matters more than text”. When the world you are creating is utterly compelling, what actually happens in that world does not matter as much. This can also apply to books. The first few hundred pages of the Lord of the Rings trilogy might fit this description. The texture is beautifully written, while the story hardly moves at all.

But the real strength of the atmospherics comes from the music. I looked through the internet to see if anyone had made a compilation of all the songs and musical pieces that appear in the novel. (Somebody should have made that compilation by now.) There is a big difference if you can hear the music when you read the novel or not. I am not a big fan of opera and I could not recognize some of the names of the music, and there is a marked difference when you can hear the tune in your head. This is probably one of the reasons there is such a difference in the reactions among the readers.

Japanese author Kaoru Kurimoto once wrote in her instructional book that all you really need is one sensory image that sticks to your reader’s minds. In the case of Bel Canto it is an auditory one. In particular, it is the one in which the teenage peasant guerrillas hear the soprano opera singer for the first time in their lives while trying to infiltrate the mansion through air ducts. It is from that moment on that the music becomes the “texture” that binds the story.

Ann Patchett has written quiet character studies before, but The Patron Saint of Liars was a portrait of three people. The Magicians Assistant was a portrait of two. Bel Canto features at least six central characters and as many supporting characters. The thing that ties it all together is the built-in background music. Strangely enough, the author writes that she was not an opera fan until she started researching for the book.

Bel Canto is proof that you can write a million dollar book while defying every convention of a marketable novel. It is a difficult task, but it might help you pull it off if you managed to implant a strong sensory image.