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Dazaifu: Oliver Statler's Unfinished Last Work

[Links to the full text of Dazaifu]

A prefatory note (work in progress)

Entering Oliver's study in the days after his death in 2002 with the sad task of packing his papers and books for delivery to the Library, I was overwhelmed. Every shelf, cabinet and surface convenient to his desk and the enlarger that helped him read more easily was filled with files, notebooks and ring binders, folders, photocopies, snapshots, piles of pamphlets and travel brochures, and books with their pages heavily marked with yellow Post-it® notes. This was where Oliver had been working on his last book, a story of Dazaifu, that ancient capital in Northern Kyushu with its dramatic setting and long stretch of history.

The disorder was dismaying. I couldn't help but compare it with the parts of his papers that he had given us in 1999. They had been meticulously arranged and labeled, reflecting the conscientious systematic documentation that was the hallmark of his research and the foundation of his earlier books.

Oliver's fascination with Dazaifu began many years ago. His early studies, his travels to Kyushu, and his steady collection of possibly useful sources were carried out when his body was still strong and his eyesight clear enough to continue the way he always had, a little more determined perhaps, with voluminous correspondence and the support of loyal researchers and translators in Japan. Some of the Dazaifu materials--possibly the earliest compiled--showed the remnants of his usual organization. The remainder had been gathered and roughly sorted in place perhaps with the recognition that there was neither time nor room left for more filing.

It is not immediately clear when Oliver began to write this story. His papers contain multiple revised versions of the early chapters, showing how he continually refined his elegant prose and added significant and surprising details freshly encountered in his research.

There was a maroon ring binder, clearly his latest draft, even that with handwritten corrections and new sources interleaved. There were tabs numbered 1 to 9, one tab for each chapter. There was no text at all behind the tab for Chapter 9, and nothing that would indicate whether he had decided formally on a title.

With the help of experts in Japanese history, culture and language, I sorted through the chaos of Oliver's office, gathering together everything that appeared to relate to Dazaifu, and pondering what best to do with it next.

Toward the end, Oliver's health and eyesight failed him. He continued to persevere but more slowly. In his last year or so he spoke with friends and colleagues about his unhappiness with his progress and his difficulties in telling his story as he wished it to be told. Chapter 8 became an unresolved burden and Chapter 9 apparently was never begun.

A small group of colleagues to whom Oliver was dear, who knew both him and the body of his life's work, read the last draft of the Dazaifu text and met to advise on the future of the manuscript. Was there enough material there to justify its publication in an incomplete state, perhaps with some judicious editing and a scholarly appraisal by a historian familiar with this period of Japanese history?

The group felt Oliver surely was satisfied with his first chapter "Introducing the Shrine and Dazaifu," with its evocative opening words:

I like the shrine best in the early morning, before the crowds press in, even before the priests present themselves at the altar to offer breakfast to the deity. The rising sun is hidden behind the steep height that hems the compound on the right. The light is dim, soft and cool. The only visitors are a few townsfolk who come singly through the towering gate to bow, clap twice and murmur their prayers. The pigeons go over the ground hunting something they might have overlooked yesterday. Their cooing overlays the silence.

When sunshine spills into the courtyard I move near to the main hall, look in to the closed altar. An altar in some form has stood here since 902. The imposing building that now rises around it is four hundred years old, but it has been well cared for. The gold of its pillars could not have glowed more brightly when it was first applied, the black lacquer glistens, the accents of color are vivid. I pay my respects, whisper my own prayer.

Nevertheless, the group shared serious concerns. Overall the work had not yet reached the standard of Oliver's previous marvelous books. It seemed thin, still lacking both depth of human character and cohesion that might have been overcome if he had mastered his difficulties with Chapter 8 and at least outlined the direction of his final chapter. Since that was not the case, the group concluded that as it stood, the manuscript was insufficient, and that Oliver would not have been ready--indeed would have been severely embarrassed--to have it formally published and subject to the reviewers' scrutiny normally given popular English works about Japan. It would suffer terribly by comparison to his earlier titles. The expectations of his thousands of devoted readers would be dashed.

This was a hard decision, given that Oliver's many friends, including those who helped with research and translation especially in Japan, were anxious to see his latest work.

The Dazaifu materials received by the Library have now been inventoried. Together with his other papers they are available for study and scholarly research just as Oliver had wished when he made the gift. Others may now see the evidence on which the group decided not to proceed with publication.

The last typed draft of Oliver's incomplete Dazaifu manuscript, reproduced here in its entirety, must be understood as an archival document of a work in progress. Reproduction is a compromise of course, made possible by the opportunities of the Internet. Yet it is perhaps the best solution to the dilemma posed by its very incompleteness. It enables us to share and appreciate the work so far, without pretending that it was ready for publication and without subjecting it to critical judgment it does not deserve.

Bronwen Solyom, UHM Library


Dazaifu Full Text

rubbingbellChapter 1 : Introducing the Shrine and Dazaifu
Chapter 2 : The Years: 527 and 528 and the 660s
Chapter 3 : The Year 730
Chapter 4 : The Years 730 - 775
Chapter 5 : The Years 803 - 835
Chapter 6 : The Ninth and Tenth Centuries
Chapter 7 : The Years 824 through 941
Chapter 8 : (No title)

The Bell of Kanzeonji in Dazaifu-shi, and the rubbing of the lower part of the Bell. The rubbing is donated to Hamilton Library as part of the Statler Collection.

 



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