The Nightingale – a modern folk tale of ancient China by a Danish author

Sometimes, when a story is very close to your heart, there’s no better place to set it than a long time ago in a land far, far away.  Hans Christian Anderson understood that when he framed his story ‘The Nightingale‘ in the setting of imperial China.  It is said by some that the nightingale in his story was inspired by Jenny Lind, the famous soprano called the Swedish Nightingale, whom he loved.  But in certain respects imperial China resembles 19th century Denmark, and even the here and now, with its society of people who judge by style rather than substance, with its humble creature gifted with an unparalleled talent, and with the monarch who, though powerful, can never be stronger than Death.  Even the far away is familiar and near.

In expanding The Nightingale to novel length, Kara Dalkey chose what was to her a familiar setting, the Heian period of Japan (750-1100 AD).  As this was a time in Japan’s history when many aspects of the Chinese culture and system of government were adopted, it is not too great a departure from the original.  The description of the Sino-Japanese milieu is given additional depth and colour with the portrayal of Buddhist priests, Confucian bureaucracy, ornate courtly garb and ornate courtly gestures.  Naturally, Dalkey also employs what is uniquely Japanese: Shinto ceremonies and traditions; haiku with few words and many meanings, ambiguous, elusive or stark; cherry blossoms in spring, drowning the pathways and thickening the air with petals and scent; and the sound of a flute, unscripted and haunting (in this case, almost literally), weaving silence and sound as the artist mingles brushstroke and emptiness.

The cover, illustrated by the inimitable Thomas Canty, shows all this.  A woman with somewhat Western features reclines with a fan in one hand, dressed in a kimono and obi, their rich folds an origami work of gold and russet fabric.  A cherry tree blooms at her elbow and another near-leafless tree stands behind her.  The caged nightingale is hung up beside her, its wings spread futilely athwart the bars of its prison.  The spine of the book is framed by two thin panels of etched cherry blossoms, slender tracings of stems and supports, and space, very reminiscent of designs by Charles Rennie Mackintosh.  It is a sensual, layered picture, and a rare example of being able to accurately judge a book by its cover.

Each section of The Nightingale is prefaced by a haiku, some of them by Bashō, who wrote this haiku …

You the butterfly – 
I, Chuang Tzu’s
dreaming heart.

… lines which reference the story of the Chinese philosopher who dreamed of being a butterfly and then, on awakening, wondered if it had been Chuang Tzu dreaming that he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that it was Chuang Tzu.  This story is particularly evocative when one considers that in Greek philosophy, the soul, or psyche, was sometimes portrayed as a butterfly.  Does the soul dream the philosopher or does the philosopher dream the soul?  Does the tale shape the storyteller, or does the storyteller craft the tale?  The answer may be … both, a paradox which makes it possible for the motion of wings in China to evoke storms in the dreams of a Westerner.