Madame Chrysanthème, by Pierre Loti

Chapter 53

Off for China

When I entered the town, at the turn of the principal street, I had the good luck to meet Number 415, my poor relative. I was just at that moment in want of a speedy djin, and I at once got into his vehicle; besides, it was an alleviation to my feelings, in this hour of departure, to take my last drive in company with a member of my family.

Unaccustomed as I was to be out of doors during the hours of siesta, I had never yet seen the streets of the town thus overwhelmed by the sunshine, thus deserted in the silence and solitary brilliancy peculiar to all hot countries.

In front of all the shops hang white shades, adorned here and there with slight designs in black, in the quaintness of which lurks I know not what — something mysterious: dragons, emblems, symbolical figures. The sky is too glaring; the light crude, implacable; never has this old town of Nagasaki appeared to me so old, so worm-eaten, so bald, notwithstanding all its veneer of new papers and gaudy paintings. These little wooden houses, of such marvellous cleanly whiteness inside, are black outside, timeworn, disjointed and grimacing. When one looks closely, this grimace is to be found everywhere: in the hideous masks laughing in the shop-fronts of the innumerable curio-shops; in the grotesque figures, the playthings, the idols, cruel, suspicious, mad; it is even found in the buildings: in the friezes of the religious porticoes, in the roofs of the thousand pagodas, of which the angles and cable-ends writhe and twist like the yet dangerous remains of ancient and malignant beasts.

And the disturbing intensity of expression reigning over inanimate nature, contrasts with the almost absolute blank of the human countenance, with the smiling foolishness of the simple little folk who meet one’s gaze, as they patiently carry on their minute trades in the gloom of their tiny open-fronted houses. Workmen squatted on their heels, carving with their imperceptible tools the droll or odiously obscene ivory ornaments, marvellous cabinet curiosities which have made Japan so famous with the European amateurs who have never seen it. Unconscious artists tracing with steady hand on a background of lacquer or of porcelain traditional designs learned by heart, or transmitted to their brains by a process of heredity through thousands of years; automatic painters, whose storks are similar to those of M. Sucre, with the inevitable little rocks, or little butterflies eternally the same. The least of these illuminators, with his insignificant, eyeless face, possesses at his fingers’ ends the maximum of dexterity in this art of decoration, light and wittily incongruous, which threatens to invade us in France, in this epoch of imitative decadence, and which has become the great resource of our manufacturers of cheap “objects of art.”

Is it because I am about to leave this country, because I have no longer any link to bind me to it, any resting-place on its soil, that my spirit is ready on the wing? I know not, but it seems to me I have never as clearly seen and comprehended it as to-day. And more even than ever do I find it little, aged, with wornout blood and worn-out sap; I feel more fully its antediluvian antiquity, its centuries of mummification, which will soon degenerate into hopeless and grotesque buffoonery, as it comes into contact with Western novelties.

It is getting late; little by little, the siestas are everywhere coming to an end; the queer little streets brighten up and begin to swarm in the sunshine with manycolored parasols. Now begins the procession of ugliness of the most impossible description — a procession of long-robed, grotesque figures capped with pot-hats or sailors’ headgear. Business transactions begin again, and the struggle for existence, close and bitter here as in one of our own artisan quarters, but meaner and smaller.

At the moment of my departure, I find within myself only a smile of careless mockery for the swarming crowd of this Lilliputian curtseying people — laborious, industrious, greedy of gain, tainted with a constitutional affectation, hereditary insignificance, and incurable monkeyishness.

Poor cousin Number 415! how right I was to have held him in good esteem! He was by far the best and most disinterested of my Japanese family. When all my commissions are finished, he puts up his little vehicle under a tree, and, much touched by my departure, insists upon escorting me on board the ‘Triomphante’, to watch over my final purchases in the sampan which conveys me to the ship, and to see them himself safely into my cabin.

His, indeed, is the only hand I clasp with a really friendly feeling, without a suppressed smile, on quitting Japan.

No doubt in this country, as in many others, there is more honest friendship and less ugliness among the simple beings devoted to purely physical work.

At five o’clock in the afternoon we set sail.

Along the line of the shore are two or three sampans; in them the mousmes, shut up in the narrow cabins, peep at us through the tiny windows, half hiding their faces on account of the sailors; these are our wives, who have wished, out of politeness, to look upon us once more.

There are other sampans as well, in which other Japanese women are also watching our departure. These stand upright, under great parasols decorated with big black letters and daubed over with clouds of varied and startling colors.

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