Dokushin (The Bachelor) Part I

Dokushin (The Bachelor)

by Mori Ogai (tr. C. E. Zambrano)

I

Winter in Kokura is not something one would call winter. A cold wind blows from the sea to the northwest and grazes one edge of Nagato, sending the withered leaves of the tangerine trees over the sandy surface of a yard–with a rustling sound the wind makes play with the leaves for a time before finally blowing them under the veranda. As the dusk deepens on such days every house shuts its doors while the night is yet young.

Soon the land is white with snow. From time to time the sound of the denbin‘s bells can be heard as they trot along, cutting through the snow with each step.

Those who are not from these parts aren’t likely to understand what is meant by the word denbin. There are two practices which, though not seen even in Tokyo, have been imported to Kokura from abroad—this denbin is one of them. At the foot of Tokiwa Bridge stands a rounded pillar. This is for posting advertisements. The bills are in a variety of colors—red, blue, yellow—written in big letters and with pictures drawn in a rough style, advertising newly opened shops, plays and other types of public entertainment. Of course, there is only one such pillar, and since there is no need for advertisements other than what one can post here as well as upon the stone wall in Daimonmachi, handwritten advertisements are far more numerous than printed ones. Even among the pictures in these advertisements, there are no such elegant images as the affiche one might see in Paris. But in any case the fact that such a pillar exists is impressive. This pillar is the other.

The one we are concerned with now is the denbin. Ever since Heinrich von Stephen,1 born in the police state of 19th-century Germany, so masterfully developed the postal network laid throughout the land, there is certainly little inconvenience in the sending and receiving of letters; but that is for items of business that may be concluded in anywhere from a day to a month. For errands that must be concluded within a day’s time, the post will be too late. Even a rendezvous, if it is an appointment for tomorrow at such-and-such time, might be arranged by post. However, when it is an urgent matter, and one must meet this very night, the post is no good. At such times there are of course those who might send a telegram. But this is going too far.2 Such a formal method of communication is utterly lacking in delicacy. No doubt at times like these what one wants is an errand boy. Those who stand at street corners, wearing hats bearing their company’s insignia, who will undertake any errand, from the delivery of letters within the town to the carrying home of parcel’s bought while in town which one cannot be bothered to carry around—these are the denbin. In exchange for one’s letter or parcels, one receives a receipt bearing the company’s seal. The process is simple and efficient. These denbin in Kokura are none other than the errand boys we so direly needed for our rendezvous.

Now, this talk of denbin seems to have gotten rather long-winded. On snowy nights in Kokura, from outside on a quiet night can be heard the denbin’s bell—ding, ding, ding—ringing at a brisk tempo.

One also hears the sweet voice of a girl calling “kari ka kari ka, come and get it” to a tune as she passes by. She has strapped to her shoulders a tin container like that with which one goes out to collect plants, but in it she has placed the karintō3 she sells, walking along holding a small lamp.

The denbin and karintō seller are there all year, but in the summer it is rather the fortune tellers who push themselves upon the ears, and one hardly heeds the sound of the denbin’s bells or the voice of the karintō seller.

On evenings like this there are perhaps those who sit under the warmth of their okigotatsu. But actually it is not so cold.

There is ice stuck to washbasins the following morning.4 Little of this will last longer than two days. At the latest, the wind changes on the third day. Snow and ice alike melt away by then.


Notes:

1) A German man known for vastly improving the postal service in Germany. Mori Ogai spent some time studying in Germany from 1884-88, during which Heinrich von Stephan was actually still alive.

2) The phrase “cutting chicken with a meat-cleaver” is used. The modern English “overkill” might be apt if this were a more recent story.

3) A cheap sweet. Karintō are basically sticks of fried dough that are coated with sugar.

4) Like in “The Bonfire,” the “tense” of this story’s first part is present. We see the past tense in most of the narration that will follow, however.

*****

Dear readers,

As always, thank you for reading. I’m not so sure my English is up to par in this first section of the story, but once all 6 sections have been posted I will likely repost the story in full with revisions. Until next time!

~苦栗鼠

Part II

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3 Responses to Dokushin (The Bachelor) Part I

  1. Terry Dassow says:

    Regarding denbin, do you keep the word in Japanese because it was a type of livelihood specific to Japan? In the description when the denbin turned out to be a girl, suddenly the image of Kiki from Kiki’s Delivery Service popped into my head. Would Kiki in Kiki’s Delivery Service be considered a denbin?

  2. poncho131 says:

    The denbin is not a girl actually. The karinto seller is though. I call the denbin “errand boy” here because “messenger” doesn’t quite encompass the full meaning of the term. But anyway, I keep the Japanese word because the whole point of the passage is explaining that this term denbin (伝便, if you are curious as to the characters) is unique to this region and so outsiders might not know what it is just by hearing the word. So it’s best to leave the term as is in this case. Concerning Kiki’s Delivery Service, hers is exactly that, a delivery service, and the term used for it in Japanese is a common, non-regionally-bound term, so in the sense that the denbin term and service is unique to this locality, no, her service is not a denbin.

    Am I making any sense? Essentially what she does is the same as the denbin service, I suppose, or at least her job could be seen as filling a similar niche. But the reason I kept the term denbin here instead of saying “messenger” or “errand boy” straight out is that those are common terms in English that would be immediately understood, and so the whole premise of this passage (explaining what the denbin is because outsiders wouldn’t understand this colloquial term) would disappear.

  3. Pingback: Tales of the Maternity Room | the translated mind

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