Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Tale of Gengi

Murasaki Shibuku gazing at the Ishiyama moon over lake Biwa
by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892)

Oh No ! My trip with Murasaki Shibuku (and Arthur Waley) through the shining world of the Heian aristocracy is finally over -- three months and 1100 pages later.
Will I ever read another novel where all characters communicate by exchanging lines of poetry?

There were so many ways it was enjoyable -- but what strikes me most now -- after just finishing -- is the gradual change -- not in the characters -- but in the storytelling --
where cliff-hanging drama does not appear until the very last notes -- as cruelly, the author compels me to quickly finish that which I never want to leave.

Has there ever been such a book ? --- not really one book, but three --- for each of the generations -- where the author's attachment gradually moves from that epitome of gallantry,
Genji himself -- the beautiful, elegant, poetic, musical, compassionate lover --- to the vulnerability of the beloved -- i.e. the women whose lives depend on high ranking men finding them attractive.

And as we become more involved in the woman's drama -- we're shown much more ambivalence in the leading male --as we move from the perfect Genji to his poor grandson,
Prince Kaoru whose Buddhist compassion can never quite equal his royal self centeredness.

Ccuriously, the one character who can span all three generations -- is the spirit of Lady Rokujo - who feeling rebuffed by Genji -- proceeds to possess/murder women in each generation of his descendants.

And yet -- the book did have problems for me -- mostly the absence of that visual/musical beauty on which the story seems to depend but which the writing -- maybe any writing --
cannot deliver. I.e. ---- I think Lady Muraski really needed to be a film director --so we could see the beauty of all these women -- experience the beauty of Genji when he dances --
and hear the beauty of all the music these characters are playing.

Without that beauty -- it's really just an endless series of unhappy stories of women seduced (raped?) and then abandoned.

The only beauty is the poetry -- which, of course, can only be dimly felt in translation -- but still can be felt in the clever metaphors chosen for each situation.

And I guess there are some very poignant moments: like Genji's embarrassment about having to ignore his physical repulsion for one of the women he loves and cares for.

And yet still -- I hung on every sentence -- as a brief window into a very strange -- but very real world -- where the rules of interaction are so different from ours -- especially
with this business of rape -- that was accepted in certain situations -- and yet still has its tragic consequences (the endless,unspeakable sorrow of Ukifune) -- or the regular occurence
of what we could call statuatory rape -- or even incest -- i.e. a guardian (Genji) having sex with his adopted child (the character called Murasaki) -- the morning after
being described so poignantly -- I had to believe the author herself knew all about it. (although in that case -- the character goes on to a mostly happy life -- that ends only when
her husband, Genji, is compelled to marry his next child bride)

It's a different world -- but something else I notice is that it's a story without the villains, murders, or executions that would accompany most sagas of royal families elsewhere
in history. Losers don't get strangled -- they just have to move to the country -- and even that murderous Lady Rokujo is less a villainn than she is an understandably broken heart -- who
actually is unaware that her spirit is causing so much trouble. Neither good nor evil trumph -- people just blossom -- mature -- and die --- like flowers in the garden -- some getting
more sun -- some being more beautiful -- than others.

But still --- there is something very annoying about the sweet smelling Prince Kaoru -- because he seems on the verge of being compassionate rather than just pious -- but he can't quite be concerned with anyone but himself -- and poor Ukifune is going to be suffering forever in her unfinished story.


on further thought ---

Maybe we can see this as yet another exercise in "redeeming the ordinary world" -- in this case, the ordinary world of women in a very small elite.

Yes, the main characters are Genji and his male progeny -- and plenty of reference is made to their elite, elegant, artsy lifestyle-- but the story is driven forward by the anxiety, sorrow, and even the anger (Rokujo) of the women.

I mean -- who cares what happens to the men in any of these relationships ? If it doesn't work out -- there's plenty of other attractive women available. And even if it does work out -- they're going to keep on looking for more women anyway.


Another version of this essay can be found here