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When the Novel Met Haiku

Petar Tchouhov

Writing novels is a prestigious occupation these days. The successful novelist attains star status, enjoys international popularity, earns a significant income - in short, his position resembles that of an MVP from a popular football team. Writing haiku occupies the polar opposite end of the spectrum, being seen instead as an extravagant pursuit for a limited circle of internationally unknown enthusiasts that does not bring them any income and that even frequently costs them a fair amount of unexpected expenses. If we compare haiku to sports, the thing it comes closest to is fishing. However, it sometimes happens that unequal marriages give birth to children of uncommon abilities. Just such a case is the first haiku-novel, which combines the seductiveness of narrative with the serene joy of contemplation. In this work, the longest and shortest of literary forms meet, find themselves reflected in one another, and together give off a powerful beam of light that projects various scenes from the Buddha's dream, also known as existence. The poems, each as short as single exhalation, act as punctuation marks against the canvas of the narration, inviting you to stop, to look around, and to listen before you cross the path that is interlaced with a string of samurais, geishas, servants, peasants, haiku-poets in robes of various colors, among them would-be writers from New Orleans, tourists, prostitutes, and - somewhere near the end - the cherry-red car of the femme fatale Natasha.

Haiku stylistics presupposes the marginalization of the author. In most cases, the author is completely absent from the picture. Just as a photographer stands behind the lens and only in exceptional circumstances uses a time-delayed shutter in order to appear in front of the lens, the haiku-poet similarly restrains his ego in order to allow the reader to be alone with the objects depicted. In a novel, however, this is not usually the case. There the author knows and says quite a bit. This is true to an even greater extent for novels with autobiographic themes, which is the kind of novel Haiku Guy is. The thoughts, moods, and feelings of the characters - and when he is among them - of the writer himself are presented to the reader with no inhibitions. In the haiku-novel, these two approaches mutually complement each other and give the text a depth and multi-dimensionality that would be difficult for either genre to achieve on its own. For example, in the beginning of the book, we find Buck-Teeth, the student-poet and Cup-of-Tea, the teacher who is dedicated to passing on the art of haiku, standing on a hill; from there they observe the arrival in the village of the feudal ruler Lord Kaga, who is accompanied by his seemingly endless retinue. The author describes in detail both the procession itself, as well as Buck-Teeth's feelings at that moment. The passage continues for almost a page, overflowing with adjectives and enumerations, being made up primarily of long sentences. All of a sudden, however, like a precious gemstone encrusted in an exquisitely-worked setting, before our eyes sparkles the haiku with which the teacher Cup-of-tea, in a masterful stroke, turns the picture into a masterpiece:

They even haul the mist!
Lord Kaga's
men

Those who are in the know about history of haiku and related forms will recognize here the connection between the haiku-novel and a genre called haibun, which is a mixture of prose and haiku that combines real experiences with imaginary ones. The famous haiku-poet Matsuo Basho (1644 - 1694) is considered the father of this genre; his travelogues written during his wanderings throughout Japan, which are interspersed with haiku, have been published in several books. The basic difference, however, is that the poetic energy that in haibun results from the juxtaposition and mutual complementariness of the prose text with haiku, in the case of the haiku-novel is strengthened by the much more complex structure of the work and the constant movement between different ways of connecting poetry and prose. In the example discussed above, in which the haiku expression by the teacher Cup-of-Tea appeared as the masterstroke that gave the picture a new dimension, the narrative-haiku pair works within a system similar to that of haibun. However, in other passages, we find other possibilities. In some cases, the poems act as a sort of dialogue between the characters that reflect aspects of their temperaments or views. Especially effective in this regard is the scene in which Buck-Teeth, heeding the call of nature on New Year's morning, completes with his stream of pee the haiku-poems begun in the same way during the night by his poet-friends. Besides being a means of communication with others, haiku-insights also frequently help the characters to find the inward path, to better understand themselves and their place within the Buddha's dream. This is how the solitary author-narrator, who falls ever deeper into despair, climbs to ever-higher heights of self-mockery through the haiku poems he writes as he strolls through the park. Beginning with

petting
each other's dog
strangers

his melancholy monologue ends in a nearby bar, where the poet retreats with the intention of drowning his sorrows in alcohol:

getting drunk
on my arm
the tavern mosquitoes

This is an example of a brilliant use of the possibilities of the haiku-novel. It is as if the haiku are greased ball bearings that help the text to move lightly and fluidly. If they are removed, we can see how the text suddenly becomes heavy and slow-moving, forcing the reader to switch into a lower gear in order to make it up the steep incline.

The variety and inventiveness of the uses of poetry is a fundamental characteristic of the haiku-novel. Besides being the work's structurally-defining element, the haiku poems - their writing, sharing, meaning, and history - are also its basic object. One might question the expediency of dedicating a whole novel to haiku; however, it turns out that a single novel is not sufficient. Thus, Haiku Guy has a sequel, the novel Laughing Buddha, which has already been published in the USA (Red Moon Press, 2004). David Lanoue has two more haiku-novels saved on his computer: Dewdrop World and Haiku Wars, which he is currently editing and shopping to publishers. And if we ask the question of why it is precisely haiku that has turned out to be such a suitable and revitalizing partner for the novel, which has been over-satiated by its promiscuous relationships, perhaps the true answer lies in the spirit of this elegant poetic form. Perhaps it lies in the fact that writing haiku is not merely a literary activity, but rather a way of viewing the world, a magnifying glass through which even the most minute and insignificant beings, things and events seem worthy of attention. The cultivation of respect and interest in everything around us is a life-preserver amid a sea of arrogance and self-absorption. The spirit of haiku gives the novel a much-needed humility and immediacy.

"pardon our dust"
the fire ants build
their city

Besides the fact that it is highly readable, witty, and, above-all, human, David Lanoue's haiku-novel achieves something many monographs and biographies could only hope to attain through much exertion, superfluous movement, and creaking of joints. He once again shows that games, entertainment and satisfaction are the most direct paths to teaching and creation.

I don't know whether David Lanoue as the author of haiku-novels will ever rival best-selling writers such as Paulo Coelho, J.K. Rowling or John Grisham. I rather doubt it, although I wish it were so. For the time being, this [Buglarian translation by Svetla Hristova] is the first publication of Haiku Guy outside of the U.S.A.; however, Spanish, French and Serbian translations are already ready and waiting to be published. Additionally, the book is currently being translated into Japanese and Italian.

little snail
inch by inch, climb
Mount Fuji!

English translation by Angela Rodel; the original Bulgarian version published in Literaturen Vestnik, June 6, 2007.

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