I love to read quotes. Even from books I will probably never peruse. One well-worded sentence can conjure the most beautiful and intricate feelings and imagery. Quotes can offer the most stunning vistas of life — granting clarity, comfort and even enlightenment. Last year I complied and posted my favourite quotations from Haruki Murakami’s novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Today, I want to do the same for Kenji Miyazawa’s most celebrated work — Night on the Galactic Railroad. I finished the book a couple of hours ago and haven’t stopped thinking about it.
Miyazawa lived a fascinating and sadly short-lived life; his outlook on existence and the universe was entirely absorbing and his exploration of two extremities—happiness and death—completely affecting. Below are my favourite quotations from Night on the Galactic Railroad, preceded by the page number they’re located on in the English paperback published by One Peace Books and translated by Julianne Neville. I have also included my favourite excerpts from Miyazawa’s short stories; The Nighthawk Star and Signal and Signal-less, which are also collected in the One Peace Books edition. These can be found below the Night on the Galactic Railroad quotes and are labelled as such.
Night on the Galactic Railroad
Why does Zanelli have to talk to me like that? I’ve never done anything to him. I could easily make fun of him if I wanted to… like about how much he resembles a rat, darting around like that. But I won’t stoop to his level. He’s the fool for being mean for no reason.
The air was crisp and clear that evening and seemed to flow in and out of the storefronts and through the streets like water. All of the streetlights were wrapped with fir and oak branches, and the six plane trees in front of the local electric company were decorated especially lavishly with a number of little lights. Small children, all wearing brand new clothes, were singing songs about the stars and calling out to the constellation Centaurus as they ran along, playing happily and setting off blue magnesium sparklers behind them. In contrast, Giovanni, with his head hung low, seemed almost a foreign object among the celebratory cheer.
The lights of the town below seemed to Giovanni like those of an undersea palace. Even from way up on the hilltop, he could faintly pick up the sounds of children singing. The wind whistled past him, swaying the grass and flowers and cooling the sweat that had soaked his shirt.
Upon hearing the sound of a train somewhere in the distance, Giovanni turned to spy it passing through a field outside of town. As he watched the uniform lights of the train compartments pass by, he imagined the travelers inside, laughing and talking as they peeled apples to eat. This thought made him feel sad, so he turned his eyes back onto the sky above.
So that white expanse up there is really made up of stars?
No matter how long he looked at it, he just couldn’t imagine space being the cold, empty place his teacher had said it was. Actually, the harder he looked, the more he thought he spied a town, farms, and fields, just like the ones around him.
Giovanni watched as the stars within the constellation Lyra flickered faintly in a way that looked as if a leg were being extended before being pulled in again. Finally the lights of Lyra settled into view, while all the other stars in the sky appeared to cluster together to form what looked like a great wisp of smoke snaking down toward the town below.
Suddenly Giovanni was consumed by an intense fondness for the bird catcher. He thought of how joyously the man went about catching the herons and wrapping them up in his parcel, and how childishly surprised and impressed he was upon catching sight of Giovanni’s ticket. Although he had only just met him and didn’t even know his name, Giovanni felt he would do anything for the bird catcher’s sake. If it would bring the bird catcher true happiness, Giovanni wouldn’t hesitate to spend a hundred years catching birds for him in the outer reaches of the Milky Way. Unable to suppress these newfound emotions, Giovanni turned to ask the bird catcher what it was he most desired, though thinking that might seem too direct he was considering a more delicate way to put it. But the bird catcher was no longer in the seat beside him, nor were his parcels in the luggage rack above. Thinking he was outside catching birds again, Giovanni hastily looked out the window, but all he could see was the beautiful riverbed and the white pampas grass, as per usual. The bird catcher’s wide back and pointed hat were nowhere to be seen.
“Where did he go?” Campanella asked faintly.
“I don’t know. Will we see him again? I had something I needed to ask him.”
“So did I.”
“When he first showed up, I felt he was a bother and treated him like one… I regret that now.”
Giovanni had never said such words before, because it was his first time ever feeling this way.
“No one knows what true happiness is, least of all me. But no matter how hard it is, if you keep to the path you deem to be true, you can overcome any mountain. With each step in that direction, people come closer to happiness.”
“To reach the truest happiness, one must make their way through many sorrows.”
Why am I feeling so sad? I want a heart that’s stronger, more pure. If I fix my eyes on those smoky blue flames straight ahead, perhaps I can cleanse my soul.
Is there no one out there willing to be with me for eternity? Look at Campanella, having so much fun talking with that girl. He doesn’t realize how much it hurts me!
What a peaceful place this is… and yet, why is my heart so restless? Why do I feel so alone?
“If it would make people happy, I wouldn’t mind if my whole body burned to ashes.”
“Campanella, let’s…” Giovanni began, but when he turned back toward his friend, he found the seat facing him empty. There was no indication that Campanella had ever been sitting upon the blue velvet upholstery. Giovanni rose from his seat as if propelled by the force of a gunshot, sticking his head out the window and crying out as loud and as hard as he could, enveloped by darkness on all sides.
The water reflected the pattern of the stars above in near perfect clarity, to the point where it almost seemed a second sky had been transplanted onto the earth. Giovanni knew in his heart that Campanella was no longer among them; instead, he was within the cosmos, waiting at the farthest reach.
The Nighthawk Star
“Hey! You home?” the Hawk called out. “I see you’ve yet to change your name. You’re unexpectedly brazen for such a lesser bird! But I’ll have you listen here, now. You and I couldn’t be more different. I can soar anywhere I please within the great blue sky, while you can only come out at dusk, or at best when it’s overcast. And just look at my fine beak and claws! I’m sure you’ll find yours cannot compare.”
“But… Mr. Hawk,” the Nighthawk replied, “how can I change my name? It’s not as if I named myself. My name was given to me, by God.”
“I beg to differ,” retorted the Hawk. “That could certainly be said of my name… that it was given to me by God. But you’ve only borrowed yours — half from me and half from the Night! Now I ask that you return both names to their rightful owners!”
Every night I kill so many insects! And now I am to be killed by the Hawk. Oh, why is it all so trying? So sad… so sad… I’ll stop eating bugs. Let me die of starvation instead. But no… the Hawk will have already slain me. Let me go flying, then… to somewhere far beyond the expanses of the sky.
“Oh, Sun! Great Sun, up above!” he cried out. “Please take me up to where you are! I don’t care should I burn to ashes. Even my ugly body would emit some small sparkle as it burned away. Please… bring me up to where you are!”
Signal and Signal-less
“Signal-less, I have something very important to say. Do take it seriously. For you, I’d do my best to keep my arm from lowering as the ten o’clock train arrived. I’d let it pass clean by.
“You mustn’t!” Signal-less protested.
“Well, of course I won’t. It really wouldn’t be much help for you or for me to do so. The point is, I am willing to, for that is how dear you are to me. You are the most important thing to me in the world. So, please… won’t you love me?”
“Don’t be cruel. How can you ignore me when I might be done in at any moment by either a lightning bolt or an eruption? Or, perhaps, I’ll be knocked over in a grand fashion by a raging storm, or carried away in Noah’s flood… In any case, I’ll be dead. Does that mean nothing to you?”
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