Thursday, December 9, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: 24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai

Mt. Fuji from the Offing in Kanagawa

I don't like writing negative reviews (Actually, that's a lie. I enjoyed savaging Lord Demon. I just feel guilty afterwards) so I always try to follow a review of a story I didn't like with a review of one I do like. I was rather critical of Eye of Cat yesterday so today's Roger Zelazny commentary will be one of my favorites, "24 Views of Mount Fuji, by Hokusai"

For some reason, I didn't want to read the story at first. I don't really remember why. I read everything else in Frost & Fire, got to
24 Views, shrugged and said, "Eh, maybe later."  I think it must have been the title, because once I began reading the story, it hooked me from the very first line. "Kit lives, though he is buried not far from here; and I am dead, though I watch the days-end light pinking cloudstreaks above the mountain in the distance, a tree in the foreground for suitable contrast."

It's wonderful, and quite unlike anything he had written previously. It is the tale of Mari, a widow whose husband has been "translated" into a powerful and alien being who now exists as a digital entity on the internet. Mari fled to America to escape him, but has now returned to Japan to bring things to a conclusion. She is using a book of twenty-four of Hokusai's prints as a kind of map for her journey, which is an absolutely wonderful framing mechanism.

I'm not doing justice to the story, because the chief strength is Mari's narrative. It has been widely observed that Zelazny very rarely wrote female characters (and his commentary on this work suggests that
24 Views was a reaction to that), but I really like the voice he gives Mari. Her narrative is is what makes the piece as wonderful as it is. Her journey is a pilgrimage and her ruminations move the story. It's easy to slip from to reflection to navel-gazing, but Zelazny never makes a misstep, even though there are several chapters composed of nothing but Mari's observations.

The Collected Works of Roger Zelazny are usually very good with their end note references, but the notes following this story are exemplary even by the high standards I had come to expect from them. Also, they have images of the appropriate woodcuts for each chapter, which is a very nice feature.

Mari enters the country in disguise and makes her way slowly towards the place where confrontation will take place, following the pattern laid out in the prints. She offers commentary on how the modern locations compare to the woodcuts as the story slowly unfurls.

Her tale has some interesting digressions as well. When she has trouble sleeping, she tells herself the following story:

So . . . Upon a time during the troubles following the death of the Retired Emperor Sutoku a number of itinerant monks of various persuasions came this way, having met upon the road, traveling to seek respite from the wars, earthquakes, and whirlwinds which so disturbed the land. They hoped to found a religious community and pursue the meditative life in quiet and tranquility. They came upon what appeared to be a deserted Shinto shrine near the seaside, and there they camped for the night, wondering what plague or misfortune might have carried off its attendants. The place was in good repair and no evidence of violence was to be seen. They discussed then the possibility of making this their retreat, of themselves becoming the shrine’s attendants. They grew enthusiastic with the idea and spent much of the night talking over these plans. In the morning, however, an ancient priest appeared from within the shrine, as if to commence a day’s duties. The monks asked him the story of the place, and he informed them that once there had been others to assist him in his duties but that they had long ago been taken by the sea during a storm, while about their peculiar devotions one night upon the shore. And no, it was not really a Shinto shrine, though in outward appearance it seemed such. It was actually the temple of a far older religion of which he could well be the last devotee. They were welcome, however, to join him here and learn of it if they so wished. The monks discussed it quickly among themselves and decided that since it was a pleasant-seeming place, it might be well to stay and hear whatever teaching the old man possessed. So they became residents at the strange shrine. The place troubled several of them considerably at first, for at night they seemed to hear the calling of musical voices in the waves and upon the sea wind. And on occasion it seemed as if they could hear the old priest’s voice responding to these calls. One night one of them followed the sounds and saw the old man standing upon the beach, his arms upraised. The monk hid himself and later fell asleep in a crevice in the rocks. When he awoke, a full moon stood high in the heavens and the old man was gone. The monk went down to the place where he had stood and there saw many marks in the sand, all of them the prints of webbed feet. Shaken, the monk returned and recited his experience to his fellows. They spent weeks thereafter trying to catch a glimpse of the old man’s feet, which were always wrapped and bound. They did not succeed, but after a time it seemed to matter less and less. His teachings influenced them slowly but steadily. They began to assist him in his rituals to the Old Ones, and they learned the name of this promontory and its shrine. It was the last above-sea remnant of a large sunken island, which he assured them rose on certain wondrous occasions to reveal a lost city inhabited by the servants of his masters. The name of the place was R’lyeh and they would be happy to go there one day. By then it seemed a good idea, for they had noticed a certain thickening and extension of the skin between their fingers and toes, the digits themselves becoming sturdier and more elongated. By then, too, they were participating in all of the rites, which grew progressively abominable. At length, after a particularly gory ritual, the old priest’s promise was fulfilled in reverse. Instead of the island rising, the promontory sank to join it, bearing the shrine and all of the monks along with it. So their abominations are primarily aquatic now. But once every century or so the whole island does indeed rise up for a night, and troops of them make their way ashore seeking victims. And of course, tonight is the night...

I'm not sure exactly what that story is doing within the larger story (except making it eligible for inclusion in later Cthulhu anthologies), but it's all kind of awesome.

In a flashback we see a newly ascended Kit trying to sell Mari on apotheosis. I really like this, because it showcases Mari's love for her husband and juxtaposes it against her keen mind and the steel in her soul.

“Does this not feel right?”

“Yes, it feels right. But I do not want that feeling unaccompanied. When I touch feeling with reason, I see that it is sometimes but an excuse for failing to close with complexity.”

“You can deal with any complexity here. Behold the data! Does reason not show you that this condition is far superior to that you knew but moments ago?”

“Nor can I trust reason unaccompanied. Reason without feeling has led humanity to enact monstrosities. Do not attempt to disassemble my imagination this way.”

Kit is a wonderful antagonist, horrifying in a nicely understated manner. Near the end, he comes to Mari in the real world and they speak.

“Last year there was a revolution in Saudi Arabia. It seemed to promise well for the Saudis but it also threatened Japan’s oil supply. Suddenly the new government began to look very bad on paper, and a new counterrevolutionary group looked stronger and better-tempered than it actually was. Major powers intervened successfully on the side of the counterrevolutionaries. Now they are in power and they seem even worse than the first government which had been overthrown. It seems possible, though incomprehensible to most, that computer readouts all over the world were somehow made to be misleading. And now the Osaka Conference is to be held to work out new oil agreements with the latest regime. It looks as if Japan will get a very good deal out of it. You once told me that you are above such mundane matters, but I wonder? You are Japanese, you loved your country. Could you have intervened in this?”

“What if I did? It is such a small matter in the light of eternal values. If there is a touch of sentiment for such things remaining within me, it is not dishonorable that I favor my country and my people.”

“And if you did it in this, might you not be moved to intervene again one day, in some other matter where habit or sentiment tell you you should?”

“What of it?” he replies. “I but extend my finger and stir the dust of illusion a bit. If anything, it frees me even further.”

“I see,” I answer.

“I doubt that you do, but you will when you have joined me..."


I don't want to spoil the ending, because I really enjoyed it and think that other readers will too. I know that the Frost & Fire anthology includes it, but having read it with the prints included, I recommend that version, which is included in volume 5 (Nine Black Doves) of The Collected Works of Roger Zelazny.

I am reminded again through Mari's allusions at what a fantastically literate author Zelazny was. The story is less than 25,000 words, but it overflows with references to all manner of classics.
Mari is quite unlike any other character Zelazny has ever written, at turns sensitive, romantic, pragmatic and ruthless. Certainly his finest female character and among the very best of any of his characters in his long career. 


  1. >>For some reason, I didn't want to read the story at first. I don't really remember why. I read everything else in Frost & Fire, got to 24 Views, shrugged and said, "Eh, maybe later."

    Too damn funny! I had the exact same reaction. I didn't read this story for years. It is truly excellent, right up there with "Home is the Hangman" among his shorter pieces.

    Side note: Going through your blog inspired me to go through my Zelazny collection, and I realize that somewhere along the line, I've lost my copy of "My Name is Legion." I had the cool Ballantine edition. Off to the used SF store I go....

    Side note #2: Maybe it's just my Opera browser, but it's quite difficult to post comments on your site.

  2. Late during the preparation of NINE BLACK DOVES, VOLUME 5 of THE COLLECTED STORIES OF ROGER ZELAZNY, I came across some reference material which showed the geographic locations of about 50 of Hokusai's woodcut paintings of Mt. Fuji. I used this to draw a map that shows the numbered locations of Mari's 24 (actually 23) stops during this story. Regretfully, we didn't have enough space to include the map. I've intended to have it posted on the NESFA Press website and I'm currently looking into having that done.

    What the map shows is that Mari's journey is quite convoluted with a lot of zig-zagging or back-and-forthing across Japan. Not the most practical of journeys to make. I suspect that Zelazny didn't realize this when he decided to have Mari travel in the route determined by the order of the 24 woodcuts in the book HOKUSAI'S VIEWS OF MT. FUJI. On the other hand, the impractical zig-zagging nature of her journey makes it even more plausible (as happened in the story) that Mari's husband would readily deduce where her next stops must be.

    Chris Kovacs

  3. That sounds very interesting. I'd love to take a look when you have it up there.

  4. The map is posted now on the webpage for Volume 5: NINE BLACK DOVES. I think its size needs to be increased because I doubt you can make out the numbers. But the numbers correspond to each of the sections of the story. You can see how Mari is zig-zagging back and forth when following the order of the prints.

  5. Cool -- thanks! I downloaded the graphic and it looks fine. Very interesting.

    --Chris DeVito

  6. I see now that when it's downloaded you get a much bigger version that what's shown on the web page.

  7. The Art Institute of Chicago currently has an exhibition of 19th-century prints of Hokusai's "Views of Mt. Fuji"; see:

    My wife and I were there a couple of days ago and took some pics. I'll see if I can post them on my Facefuck page.


  8. Excellent! Thanks for the heads up!