舟を編む, reading notes
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舟を編む・ふねをあむ Part 2

My reading notes for the second part of the novel 舟を編む by 三浦しをん. From page 37 to 121.

I make this notes to help me understand the novel, but I think that it could also help any Japanese learner trying to read this novel in Japanese.

Links:

Part 1 was focused on Araki but part 2 follows Majime.

Characters

I will note only the characters appearing for the first time in part II. For the other characters, see part I.

トラさん

Majime’s cat.

タケおばあさん

Majime’s landlady. She owns the lodge called 早雲荘・そううんそう and Majime is her only tenant at the time. Even if she used to live on the first floor, she eventually came to use the second floor, leaving the first floor to Majime’s book collection.

林香具矢・はやしかぐや

Kaguya is the grand-daughter of Mrs Take. She left Kyoto to come to Tokyo and move in 早雲荘 to stay with her grandmother. She works as a cook in the restaurant 梅の実.

Places

早雲荘・そううんそう

This is the name of the lodge where Majime lives and where Kaguya moves. It belongs to Mrs Take.

梅の実・うめのみ

This is the name of the restaurant where Kaguya works. It will become the new place where our compilers team go for dinner on the days where they hold the hebdomadary reunion.

Tips to understand the story

p. 37: 神田川・かんだがわ

Majime sings 「まどの~したには~」 while opening his window. These are the lyrics of the song 神田川 by かぐや姫. The song was released in 1973. The lyrics go: “窓の下には神田川”. Under my window, the Kanda river. That’s why the novel says that, under Majime’s window, instead of the Kanda river, there was only a thin irrigation channel.

I can’t get the refrain out of my head, 若かったあの頃…

p. 45-46: ツーカー

Mrs Take says to Majime that they have a “ツーカーの仲”. ツーカー, also written つうかあ means that two persons know each other’s mind well. Majime reflects upon this expression and wonders where it comes from. つうかあ is a contraction for “つうと言えばかあ”. Majime has read an etymology of this expression, but it was not an established one.

Instead of つう and かあ, Majime asks himself why it couldn’t be “おーいと言えばお茶” or “ねえと言えばムーミン”. These associations puzzled me because I find strange that Majime should think of it. This is how I understand them, and I hope that I am not mistaken:

“おーいと言えばお茶” refers to a famous green tea drink called おーいお茶. The drink was first sold in 1985 but only got its name おーいお茶 in 1989. This drink must have been very popular at the time since it changed the image Japanese had of “tea”. It was not only a warm beverage that was taken at home, but it was also a cold drink in a plastic bottle that one could drink anywhere (see Wikipedia).

“ねえと言えばムーミン” refers to the famous character of Tove Jansson, Moomin. There is a well-known anime adaptation of the book that came out in 1990, but before that, a first anime adaptation was released in Japan in 1969. The opening and ending song of the series was “ねえ!ムーミン”. It must have been popular enough if the author of our book decided that even Majime knew at least the title of the anime’s song…

p. 53: そういうひと

Majime is reading the definition of “love” 恋愛・れんあい and all dictionaries of the time describe it as a feeling between a man and a woman. Nishioka wonders if:

恋愛の対象を「特定の異性」に限ってしまうのは妥当でしょうか

before adding:

まじめちゃん、もしかしてそういうひと?

Majime does not understand right away what Nishioka is hinting at. In fact, to understand Nishioka’s remark, we have to remember that Majime said, p.31, that he never thought of whether he would like to have a girlfriend or not. To be honest, I didn’t understand straight away that Nishioka thinks Majime may be homosexual. It’s hard to get allusions and suggested things in a foreign language…

p. 57: リアルに

Majime is struck by Nishioka’s use of リアルに to say 本当に or 実に. I have checked the dictionary myself, and リアルに is translated as “realistically”.

Majime says that he is not familiar with the adverb リアルに and plan to see whether it should be added to the dictionary. I guess the meaning of this word evolved with time?

p. 62: 女性の板前

To understand this passage, I had to search for Japanese explanations… Well, I feel reassured to see that even Japanese didn’t understand this passage! 😄

Talking about Kaguya, the young woman he fell in love with, Majime says that she is a cook and uses the word 板前・いたまえ. I knew the word まな板・まないた which means “chopping board”, and I knew from the film that Kaguya works in a restaurant, so I didn’t check the word 板前 because I guessed it meant “cook”.

What puzzled me is Nishioka’s remark: “まじめ、おまえやっぱり…!”. The book then says that this time, Majime knew what Nishioka was hinting at and added: “香具矢さんは、女性の板前さんです”.

To understand Nishioka’s やっぱり!, we have to remember that page 53, Nishioka thought that Majime was gay. We also have to know that 板前・いたまえ is more frequently used for men, which I didn’t know. When he hears that Kaguya is a “cook”, Nishioka assumes that she is a man, which confirms the image he has of Majime, hence the やっぱり!.

p. 68~70: こころ by 夏目漱石

Again, a difficult part…

Having seen that Nishioka thinks that Kaguya is interested in him, professor Matsumoto suggest that Nishioka should settle himself in 早雲荘, the lodge where both Majime and Kaguya live.

Of course, Nishioka asks why professor Matsumoto comes to such a strange idea. His reply is:

漱石の「こころ」を現代によみがえらせるチャンスだと思ったのですが。

  • 漱石の「こころ」 is the novel Kokoro by Soseki (漱石・そうせき).
  • よみがえる means “be brought back to life”, “rise from the dead”, “be restored to life”, “revive”. We have here the causative form: よみがえらせる.

I thought that it would be an opportunity to revive Soseki’s novel Kokoro in the modern times.

I haven’t read Kokoro, so it was harder to understand the dialogue that follows. Nishioka says that he remembers this book from his school manual “ああ、国語の教科書に載ってましたね” and can only remember that the testament contained in the novel was terribly long, which was funny “遺書が異様に長くて、まじウケた”. Of course, Araki is shocked by Nishioka’s remark: “「こころ」に対する感想が、それなのか!(…) おまえ本当に、なぜ出版社にいるんだ.”

A little further, professor Matsumoto explains that if Nishioka were to move to 早雲荘, a three-way relationship would be bound to start between Majime, Nishioka and Kaguya. Professor Matsumoto refers to Sensei and K both loving the same woman in Kokoro. Professor Matsumoto thinks that one has to experience things to truly grasp their meaning and being able to define them.

(After having done some research and re-read this part carefully, it does not seem difficult after all…)

p. 79~83 のぼる and あがる

Majime reflects upon the difference between あがる and のぼる. When Kaguya proposes to go to the park together, Majime thinks that what he feels is exactly what you would call “天にものぼる気持ち”.

天にものぼる気持ち is an expression which means “feel as if one is going up to Heaven”, “be in seventh heaven”.

This expression allows him to grasp the difference between あがる and のぼる. Whereas あがる focuses on the destination following the rise, のぼる focuses on the rise itself, the process of ascending. For example, climbing a mountain 山に登る is more about the ascension itself than reaching the peak.

In the same way, the expression 天にものぼる気持ち describes how a great emotion or a strong joy makes your soul become lighter and raise to the sky. With のぼる, the ascension is more important than the state of “having ascended”.

p.113 料理人

Majime looks up the word 料理人 in the 言海, a dictionary compiled at the end of the 19th century and considered to be the first Japanese dictionary of the modern times. The 言海 gives the definition of 料理人 as such: 料理ヲ業トスル者、厨人.

  • ヲ is another graphic for を, which I didn’t know.
  • 業・ごう
  • 厨人・ちゅうじん is an outdated word which isn’t used anymore. As Majime sadly remarks, it shows that a dictionary, even a remarkable one, cannot escape its fate to fall behind times (my English is not good enough to translate the beautiful Japanese sentence: “どんなにすぐれた辞書でも、時代遅れになる宿命は避けられない” p.113).

p.94, p.108, p.118-119 馬締の恋文

The love letter Majime writes to Kaguya is sometimes referred to as 恋文・こいぶん, especially when Majime himself talks or thinks about it, sometimes as ラブレター, a word used by Kaguya and Nishioka.

lettre de majimeI was surprised to find the complete letter at the end of the novel. It’s called 「馬締の恋文、全文公開」. The letter of Majime contains 漢文・かんぶん, Classical Chinese. To be more precise, Majime inserted Classical Chinese poems (by Chinese and Japanese authors like Soseki) in his letter. Understanding the meaning of the poems is important to understand the meaning of the letter.

Among the poems, there were several verses from the Chinese poet Li Shangyin of the Tang dynasty. I remember having loved his poems when I studied them years ago. I understand why Majime’s letter is so puzzling. Being able to read and understand Chinese classical poetry is in itself challenging. But to truly understand the implicit meaning of some verse, one has to have a really good literary knowledge.

The 「馬締の恋文、全文公開」at the end of our book reproduces Majime’s letter with explanations from Nishioka (and another character). Nishioka translates the poems in modern Japanese, which is strange because I thought Nishioka was not that keen on literary things…

I have read the letter. It is written in a literary but contemporary Japanese. I can’t understand the poems without Nishioka’s translation. But still… even if I hadn’t Nishioka’s translation of the poems, and even though I also have difficulties understanding the rest of the letter because Japanese is not my mother tongue… still I think that I would have understood that this is a love letter.

Why does Kaguya say that she didn’t know whether the letter was a love letter or not?

In the film, we can see that the letter was written in calligraphy. In this case, it is easy to understand why Kaguya couldn’t read it. But in the novel, unless I missed the information, it is not said that the letter was written in calligraphy. They only refer to the Classical Chinese insertions….

Have I missed something in the novel? Or did the film add the calligraphy part to explain why Kaguya could not read the letter? I made some research on the internet, and I found this blog where the author asks the same questions that I am asking myself: 1- how come that Nishioka and the other character can translate Classical Chinese poems? Is it something anyone working in a publishing house can do? 2- why Kaguya doesn’t know that this is a love letter? Even if the letter is hard to read and the meaning not always clear, the message of love contained in it appeared plainly to the author of the blog.

… 🤔

Conclusion

It took me a lot of time to finish this long second part, mainly because I stopped reading the novel for a long time. In the meanwhile, I focused on my JLPT program and even read another novel. But eventually, I came back to 舟を編む. I can’t say that I am reading it comfortably, I have to be extremely concentrated, I always have my dictionary nearby and I sometimes have to look for explanations on the internet. In other words, I would have abandoned this novel if it were not a really good one, with both funny and melancholic tones and interesting contents about Japanese language, literature and the publishing world. This confirms that motivation has to be found in the contents. I am not struggling with this novel to improve my Japanese, but because I want to understand a  novel that interests me.

Making reading notes takes a lot of time, but it helps considerably. Without them, I would certainly just skip the difficult parts and continue reading. In the end, I would have missed a lot of the novel’s depth.

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