To be blessed with simplicity
“Long before you and I were born there reigned, in a country a great way off, a King who had three sons. The King once fell very ill, so ill that nobody thought he could live. His sons were very much grieved at their father’s sickness; and as they walked weeping in the garden of the palace, an old man met them and asked what they ailed…”
They are the very first phrases of the account “The Water of Life” by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, one of their “German Fairy Tales.”
To answer one of my best friends, worried because of his ‘limited vocabulary,’ my first thought is that Wagner created his Parsifal with only seven notes. The same notes used by Mozart to create “The Magic Flute,” for instance. What is important is the final melody, the “sequence of single notes that is musically satisfying,” not the single bricks of the construction. So in literature the most impressive feature is the voice of the author, the sequence of single words that creates a “distinctive tone or a literary style.” The voice, not the vocabulary, is the right point, the golden element, and the dominant character.
And reading again “The Water of Life” it is possible to appreciate that.
By using a limited, usual and maybe poor vocabulary, in a few phrases the Grimm’s tale is able to convey the sense of time, “long before you and I were born…,” the sense of space and distance, “in a country a great way off…,” a scenography, “the garden, the palace…,” the beginning of a compelling plot “a King who had three sons… the King once fell very ill… ,” etc.
Grimm’s voice is strong, immediately evocative, totally fitting with the nature of the piece, just a fairy tale, and its purposes.
Now, don’t underestimate “The Water of Life,” please. It is a tale written in 1820 circa, I know. Nevertheless Grimm’s art and power endure still now, just because simplicity triumphs.
I already spoke in this blog about “Toxic Flora,” by Kimiko Hahn—I love it so much—so I can provoke you with two different excerpts. The first one:
“Sometimes you suffocate when you think of the past; of a life that never was, flashing up in sepia. Memory which is creamy-yellow, cracked; composed of protogallic acid, protosulphate of iron, potassium cyanide. Let’s not get too technical. Not right now. It makes for too much exposure…” It is from “Shanghai Dancing,” by Brian Castro.
By the way, I don’t like it; could you explain why?
The second excerpt:
“After I got married, the first child born to us was mentally handicapped. We named him Hikari, meaning ‘Light’ in Japanese. As a baby he responded only to the chirps of wild birds and never to human voices.” It is from “Japan, The Ambigous, and Myself,” by Kenzaburo Oe, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature 1994.
Ok, I hope it is clear now that I love this opening because it is direct, simple, effective, and evocative at the same time. Kenzaburo Oe is talking about a private, delicate matter. So he uses a “deprived way” to introduce the story, without any intermediary between the reader and himself, without any device except the strength of sincerity and simplicity. The content is dramatic in itself, and any added word would have been superfluous.
You immediately are an insider of the story, in the first row. And you feel privileged to share this kind of confession. You are moved, at the writer’s side.
Moreover, there is a tremendous force in the phrase, and a compelling sense of anticipation: the choice of the son’s name is a love declaration and conveys a terrific message of hope, of existential determination. So in only one phrase Kenzaburo Oe deploys the whole weight of an unexpected, dramatic event and an opening, a future: a love story can begin.
In many Japanese authors, not by chance, simplicity is positively devastating.