The label historical novelist usually brings to mind someone like Robert Graves, whose I, Claudius has become something of a staple reference point for such work. It’s no coincidence Graves is namechecked in the introduction to The Roof Tile of Tempyō, but not because this slender and spare work is any kind of sequel in spirit to Graves’s books. The whole reason it’s mentioned is as contrast, since Yasushi Inoue’s approach to reconstructing history is consistently minimalist. He isn’t interested in battle scenes or souped-up drama; he takes the facts that are available, presents them plainly, and adorns them with only such novelistic embellishment as he feels are needed.
For the most part this approach works, and works so well the competition just feels overblown and self-indulgent. It was like that with The Blue Wolf, his remarkable history of Genghis Khan’s life and empire; it was most definitely like that with Tun-huang, his masterwork (written the same year as The Blue Wolf, incredibly), wherein he merged history and fiction to provide an explanation for the treasure found in the Thousand Buddha Caves. Roof Tile is not quite in the same category, if only because the history it retraces is highly specific to Japanese (and Chinese) readers and demands a lot more effort from the reader to assimilate the material. That doesn’t make it a bad book — just not the first Inoue one should read. That distinction I leave to either of the other two mentioned before.
Roof Tile is set in Japan’s early Nara period (around 700-800 C.E.), when that country was beginning to create its own system of government and develop cultural artifacts that were that much less explicitly borrowed from China and the various Korean kingdoms. Every decade or so, sometimes more, a diplomatic envoy was sent from Japan to China — a hazardous journey of several months across treacherous oceans, from which a disturbing percentage of voyagers never returned. Here, the envoy consists of (among many others) four Buddhist monks, who have been chosen to make the journey so that they might convince a native Chinese Buddhist to return with them and invigorate the domestic practice of Buddhism with that much more direct instruction.
This was a tall order to fill — not only because of the perils of the journey itself, but because the monks are not convinced a local will want to follow them back, even if it is for the sake of transmitting the dharma. Their journey out from Japan is rough enough, but once they arrive in China and find themselves staying for not just months but years on end, through one tribulation after another (including being suspected of piracy and jailed for a period!), each of them in turn has their resolve tested differently. Most poignant is the tale of the monk Gōgyō, a meek and socially awkward little man who has devoted his entire life to making the most faithful possible copies of the Buddhist canon from the Chinese manuscripts he has access to. If they are faced with the choice of pitching either him or his work overboard during a storm at sea, he tells them, he will go that much sooner. But the choice may be between his copy-work — faithful and meticulous, but inert — and the monk Ganjin, blind and frail but a living source of Buddhism, and for many that much more valuable.
The book is not long, but it also reads dryly for those not already interested in the subjects at hand. In just about all of his work that I’ve read, Inoue has never tried to inject artificial passion into his stories but to find it where it already lies dormant. Passion does exist here — intermittently, but when he presents it it’s always striking, as when one of the monks has nightmares about their cargo (human and otherwise) sinking into the ocean, and fears in his ocean-bound delirium that the nightmare and the reality are indistinguishable. Or the moment when one of the other monks questions whether or not he even wants to return to his native land, seeing as how many others from Japan have settled in China so comfortably and found so many new things to explore. Such moments are rare, but they make the experience of reading Roof Tile that much more compelling — that is, for those who don’t have problems with either the subject matter or Inoue’s inherently reserved approach.amazon-alt=71H5j-atwZL