Madame Chrysanthème, by Pierre Loti

Chapter 38

The Height of Sociability!

In this fine town of Nagasaki, about five or six o’clock in the evening, one hour of the day is more comical than any other. At that moment every human being is naked: children, young people, old people, old men, old women — every one is seated in a tub of some sort, taking a bath. This ceremony takes place no matter where, without the slightest screen, in the gardens, the courtyards, in the shops, even upon the thresholds, in order to give greater facility for conversation among the neighbors from one side of the street to the other. In this situation visitors are received; and the bather, without any hesitation, leaves his tub, holding in his hand his little towel (invariably blue), to offer the caller a seat, and to exchange with him some polite remarks. Nevertheless, neither the mousmes nor the old ladies gain anything by appearing in this primeval costume. A Japanese woman, deprived of her long robe and her huge sash with its pretentious bows, is nothing but a diminutive yellow being, with crooked legs and flat, unshapely bust; she has no longer a remnant of her little artificial charms, which have completely disappeared in company with her costume.

There is yet another hour, at once joyous and melancholy, a little later, when twilight falls, when the sky seems one vast veil of yellow, against which stand the clear-cut outlines of jagged mountains and lofty, fantastic pagodas. It is the hour at which, in the labyrinth of little gray streets below, the sacred lamps begin to twinkle in the ever-open houses, in front of the ancestor’s altars and the familiar Buddhas; while, outside, darkness creeps over all, and the thousand and one indentations and peaks of the old roofs are depicted, as if in black festoons, on the clear golden sky. At this moment, over merry, laughing Japan, suddenly passes a sombre shadow, strange, weird, a breath of antiquity, of savagery, of something indefinable, which casts a gloom of sadness. And then the only gayety that remains is the gayety of the young children, of little mouskos and little mousmes, who spread themselves like a wave through the streets filled with shadow, as they swarm from schools and workshops. On the dark background of all these wooden buildings, the little blue and scarlet dresses stand out in startling contrast — drolly bedizened, drolly draped; and the fine loops of the sashes, the flowers, the silver or gold topknots stuck in these baby chignons, add to the vivid effect.

They amuse themselves, they chase one another, their great pagoda sleeves fly wide open, and these tiny little mousmes of ten, of five years old, or even younger still, have lofty head-dresses and imposing bows of hair arranged on their little heads, like grown-up women. Oh! what loves of supremely absurd dolls at this hour of twilight gambol through the streets, in their long frocks, blowing their crystal trumpets, or running with all their might to start their fanciful kites. This juvenile world of Japan — ludicrous by birth, and fated to become more so as the years roll on — starts in life with singular amusements, with strange cries and shouts; its playthings are somewhat ghastly, and would frighten the children of other countries; even the kites have great squinting eyes and vampire shapes.

And every evening, in the little dark streets, bursts forth the overflow of joyousness, fresh, childish, but withal grotesque to excess. It would be difficult to form any idea of the incredible things which, carried by the wind, float in the evening air.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57