Literary novel
Jacek Dukaj
Empire of the Clouds

A breathtaking story inspired by Japanese culture and one of the most beloved Polish classics – The Doll by Bolesław Prus

Mutsuhito is thirty-seven years old according to the traditional counting system of the Land of the Gods. Concubines have born him a son and a daughter; the empress is barren. He has no quarrel with the verdicts of the gods, with the verdicts of fate.

After dusk, surrounded by dozens of policemen, he descends from the road, climbs the mountain passes and hills, and in the silence drenched by sounds of nocturnal bird wings and the croaking of frogs, he marvels at the beauty and cruelty of the mortal world. Composes poetry that none shall ever read.

A journey without end — empty is the mind of the wanderer — a pitcher for the stones of longing.

The court teachers of Rangaku and Rigaku have shown him that there is no war between the principles

of Darwin’s world and the principles of Confucius’s world. Also, Nihon occupies only the place it deserves, and it deserves it because it has fought for it.

In Mutsuhito’s dreams, the empire of his son is the most powerful country in the world; his fleets rule the waves, his coin buys up the treasures of European capital cities, his subjects tread firmly the pavements of

the white man’s empires.

Did Amaterasu not promise that imperial power would reach wherever the Sun’s rays reach?

Meanwhile Mutsuhito must complete part of his rokadai junkō on foot, for the roads of his country are rivers of mud, along which travel is dangerous even in a palanquin.

By the light of the Moon, he reads the Chinese characters of the waka and kanshi poetry received from his spouse; the empress is also a poet. He comes down from the hill. They are already waiting for him.

An emissary from the cabal of the Blessed Proposal has arrived from Europe, from the Land That Does Not Exist, and here, under cover of night, on the fifth day of the eleventh month, not far from the village of Sogaoawa, in the court and government tents placed at intervals in an apricot grove, he has struck a deal with the Minister for Education and Reforms, Mori Arinori.

The emperor takes no part in deals. The emperor does not say anything. No one says anything. No gesture of protocol confirms the emperor’s presence.

For years, foreigners have striven unsuccessfully for an audience in Tōkyō. Mutsuhito is the first ruler to have seen a Western barbarian. To have been seen by a Western barbarian.

Like a flame writhing in the wind — the red glow of the Sun goddess in the eyes of tired warriors — the hundred and twenty-second spark in eternity — the face of the tennō in the gloom.

From the purple hands of the emissary, via the hands of the policeman, minister and kinjū courtiers, the massive gift makes its way to the hands of the emperor. It is a metal crane outstretched for flight, two shaku

in length, wing to wing. In the light of the torches and lanterns, it gleams with the rough skin of impure steel.

Excerpt translated by Ursula Phillips

Literary novel
Jacek Dukaj
Empire of the Clouds

A breathtaking story inspired by Japanese culture and one of the most beloved Polish classics – The Doll by Bolesław Prus

Publisher: Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 2020
Translation rights: Andrew Nurnberg Associates Warsaw, anna.rucinska@nurnberg.pl

A century and a half ago, the world was already entranced by the beauty of Japan – by its kimonos, swords, kanji. This mostly resulted in appropriation of the culture or imitation without proper understanding: the founding of more ‘martial arts schools’ or the aping of tea-brewing ceremonies. Incomparably harder was penetrating the sources of Japanese spirituality and creating a work of art that is not simply a clone, but a complement and development. Yet this is precisely what Empire of the Clouds is – a novel so powerfully rooted in Japanese aesthetics, sensibility and values that its reception is not easy at first. Making the effort, however, allows the reader to experience the reality of the Meiji era more fully and tangibly.

The intention of Jacek Dukaj, an author with philosophical flair and unbelievable imagination, is not however to create a novel of social criticism whose action takes place in the Far East at the turn of the twentieth century. This is merely the stage set for the first act, against which Dukaj develops a breath-taking plotline. An emissary from a faraway country arrives at the imperial court proposing an alliance based on an unusual invention, while the unfolding of events is seen through the eyes of a young Japanese woman named Kiyoko. Here the point of departure is one of mankind’s perennial dreams – that of a ‘metal lighter than air’. Having dared to undertake this experiment in the realm of physics, Dukaj extracts from it every possible consequence for his plot and poetics. He keeps a tight rein on his fantasy, however, thanks to which does not become another piece of cyberpunk science fiction: no, the belle epoque persists in its forms and rules, except that high up in the air there ‘rotate enormous angular hearts of steel’, reproduced multiple times over as if in a picture by Magritte. Out of a single idea, out of a single paradox arise rusty dew, metallic rains and jellyfish blooms floating above the ocean, as well as a sword that hangs over the Valley at a height of ten jō. And yet what remains with us longest after reading is not a vision of a different world order or the beauty of metallic metaphors – but only the idea of a spirituality wherein the boundary between ‘I’ and ‘not-I’ has been erased, only tenderness in the face of transience, only a silver shaving of sadness.

Wojciech Stanisławski

Translated by Ursula Phillips

Selected samples

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Aleksandra Lipczak
Jacek Dukaj
Wit Szostak
Bartosz Biedrzycki
Zyta Rudzka
Maciej Płaza
Wojciech Chmielewski
Paweł Huelle
Angelika Kuźniak
Wojciech Kudyba
Michał Protasiuk
Stanisław Rembek
Rembek
Krzysztof Karasek
Elżbieta Isakiewicz
Artur Daniel Liskowacki
Jarosław Jakubowski
Zbigniew Stawrowski
Szczepan Twardoch
Wojciech Chmielarz
Robert Małecki
Zygmunt Miłoszewski
Anna Piwkowska
Dominika Słowik
Wojciech Chmielewski
Barbara Banaś
Rafał Mikołajczyk
Jerzy Szymik
Waldemar Bawołek
Julia Fiedorczuk
Jakub Szamałek
Witold Szabłowski
Jacek Dukaj
Grzegorz Górny, Janusz Rosikoń
Paweł Piechnik
Andrzej Strumiłło

69

Marta Kwaśnicka
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Stokowski
Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki
HKD
Jakub Małecki
Malecki_Horyzont
Łukasz Orbitowski
Orbitowski
Małgorzata Rejmer
Rejmer
Rafał Wojasiński
Olanda
Wojciech Kudyba
Kudyba
Włodzimierz Bolecki
Bolecki
Jerzy Liebert
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Zembaty
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Musiał
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Wiesław Myśliwski
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Olga Tokarczuk
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The work of Józef Łobodowski (1909-1988) – a remarkable poet, prose writer, and translator, who spent most of his life in exile – is slowly being revived in Poland. Łobodowski’s brilliant three- volume novel, composed on an epic scale, concerns the fate of families and orphans unmoored by the Bolshevik Revolution and civil war and … Continue reading “Ukrainian Trilogy: Thickets, The Settlement, The Way Back”

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