Patricia Almarcegui travels to Japan to blow up travel literature | Culture


Patricia Almarcegui in Menorca, last Friday.
Patricia Almarcegui in Menorca, last Friday.Daniel Arquimbau

The itinerary of Lost notebooks of Japan (Candaya, 2021), by Patricia Almarcegui, begins on a Japanese high-speed train called Kodama, like María Kodama, Borges’s wife, and ends ―before a final one: “Today I shouldn’t do anything, just write” – with the annotation: “I think there is going to be a change after my last trip. The freshness of writing ”. In the middle, one of the most interesting experiments in recent times in the genre of travel literature in our country. An unusual, exquisite, delicate, moving, essential and revealing book, tinged with a strange melancholy and not without sensuality (“a silk kimono brushing my skin, I don’t wear anything underneath and I walk; the cherry color brushes my nipples, they harden ”).

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Lost notebooks of Japan It is surprising for its brevity (123 pages), its dazzling intensity (“it rains gently in Kyoto”, “the petals of cherry and plum trees fall noiselessly on the fluffy moss”, “a swan navigates the dark lake of the moat, nobody would dare to enter the imperial palace of Tokyo, just a swan ”) and his ability to tell revealing things both about the country and its culture, from Shintoism to manga through tents and geishas, ​​as well as the traveler herself (Alzheimer’s and her mother’s death).

Conceived as a kind of collage, mixture of different materials (including a letter from Yasunari Kawabata to Yukio Mishima, two of the great names in Japanese literature; a calendar and a list of Japanese bird names: woodpecker is keratsutsuki) and styles, with part of a travel diary, an intimate diary and a book of quotes and aphorisms, Lost notebooks of Japan contains facts, descriptions, falsely inconsequential annotations, reflections, lyrical fragments and highly personal notes in a mesmerizing mix in which the stacato of the Japanese language and the brevity of koan, the problem that the teacher poses to the student to check his progress in the Zen tradition.

Cherry blossoms at the Yasukuni temple in Tokyo, a landmark that marks the beginning of the 'sakura' in the capital.
Cherry blossoms at the Yasukuni temple in Tokyo, a landmark that marks the beginning of the ‘sakura’ in the capital. TORU HANAI / REUTERS

Almarcegui (Zaragoza, 52 years old), one of the most recognized authors of travel literature in Spanish (A traveler through Central Asia, Knowing Iran) and who has reflected abundantly on the genre (The sense of the trip, The myths of the trip), in his new book he launches himself with the courage of a Freya Stark or an Isabelle Eberhardt in search of a new way of telling the journey. And so on the pages the reader observes the writer in the wake of the Eugen Herrigel of Zen in the art of archery imagining that he draws an invisible bow in the shrine of kyudo from the island of Shikanoshima, examining young strangers at the Shibuya crossing, investigating the role of women, evoking samurai in the fish vendors who cut their prey in the Tokyo fish market, watching obese Americans drink beer in the ruins of the Hiroshima atomic bomb dome, reliving films by Mizoguchi or Kurosawa or explaining the incredible variety of the big business of prostitution: in the so-called brothels imekura, clients act out their sexual fantasies with prostitutes, such as touching schoolgirls in public transport.

“The book has been commissioned by the publisher,” says Almarcegui, having a drink in the bar of the Institut del Teatre, a very convenient place for the writer, who was a ballet dancer, an experience that inspired her novel The memory of the body. “I said to myself, okay, but I’m going to think of another structure that is not the conventional one of the travel genre, that doesn’t sound viejuno; Trying to take a different step is good enough for that omniscient traveler who has the whole truth; I vindicate the traveler as someone erratic, who makes mistakes, who jumps from one trip to another, who does not learn, who gets confused, and who talks about what he does not know. And I also wanted to experiment with language, give it a musical sense, play with rhythm, with repetitions ”.

Two women in a traditional bath in Japan.
Two women in a traditional bath in Japan.Bohistock

In several cases there is like a coda running through the book, a few leitmotiv, that are appearing. “I wanted the shape to also explain the trip, and that country, Japan.” Almarcegui points out that it was a coincidence that this inflection in his travel writing coincided with the Japan book. “But some of everything I’ve read for that trip has stuck to me anyway,” he adds. Lost notebooks of Japan is impregnated with reflections on travel and the traveler, some by Japanese authors (of the Cantares de Ise, from Basho, or from Nakajima: “The color of the sea was as if they had melted jade into milk”) and others from Almarcegui herself. “Hotels are the home of the journey”, “errors guide the journey”, “things must be apprehended in their movement” or the litany “the journey is dead. The end of the trip. The journey is dead. The end of the trip… ”, which recalls that idea that has been repeated for more than 20 years.

Sometimes very unexpected phrases are found, such as “the love one feels for a man depends in large part on his farewells”, or “fucking sideways with a lost gaze on the tatami mats”. “Yes”, laughs mischievous Almarcegui, “there is sometimes a game, a freedom, images that flow and that are linked without relationship; my voice mixes, blends with others ”.

Poverty and pornography

In any case, the immersion of the writer in Japanese culture has been deep: readings, courses, the trip itself (actually two, in 2009 and 2018). You’ve tried to avoid “the clichés”: they don’t appear katanas (“For what?”) Nor harakiris nor kamikazes. Instead, they talk about poverty, pornography and thermal baths, which the author is passionate about.

From the feminist conscience that resonates in the book, the references to traveling as a woman (“so what if I am a woman? And what if I travel alone?”, “We have the right to go and we have the right to return”, “woman in alert ”) and the inclusion of the passages about the two Argentine tourists murdered in Ecuador in 2016, Almarcegui points out that it is inherent to his writing, that he has put himself in the shoes of the two victims and has imagined their terror (“ and I have past traveling ”). And she deplores: “To be a woman who travels alone is to be a woman who is continually asked why she does it.”


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