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.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki

Here's a quick follow-up to my reading of the epic "Tale of Gengi" -- and it feels like a distant, dim memory of that high-aesthetic world -- where the modern characters still write careful, important letters with brush on paper -- still take music and dance classes -- and still pay attention to their kimono -- but it does seem that these kimono have been laundered a few times too often -- leaving them clean and spotless -- but maybe just a little faded ?

Unfortunately, respectability, not beauty, seems to be the motivating factor here -- i.e. the Makioka sisters are middle class -- as is 20th C. Japan.

And how patient they all are ! (except for the naughty Taeko)

The story is set in the years leading up to the war with America -- and if these sisters had lived in Hiroshima, I'm sure that if they survived the blast, they'd be out trying to find poor Yukiko a proper husband the very next day.

As if Yukiko cared -- which makes the story so enjoyable -- because the whole process is beneath her -- and yet -- despite her non-cooperation -- despite that pesky spot that keeps appearing over her eye on certain days of the month -- and despite her advancing age (she's ten years older than she should be) ---- still ---- she manages to draw interest from one man after another -- each one from a higher class than the one before. It's amazing -- and such a tribute to the persistence of her sister Sachiko and her husband -- and especially of their meddling friends.

"It takes a village to get a nice girl married"

Of course, I'm partial to Taeko --- the youngest sister who can't get married until her older sister, Yukiko finds a husband.

So Taeko just throws respectability out the window -- and is a very bad girl: she elopes -- she becomes an artist -- she wants to go to France and learn dress-making -- she works her rich-loser boyfriend for cash -- and finally -- worst of all -- she gets pregnant by a bartender.

Oh -- what's it all about, Taeko ? Is it just for the moment we live ? (sorry -- I break into a popular melody from the 60's)

And against this eternal striving for either respectability or gratification -- is the enemy of us all: sickness and death -- portrayed quite graphically -- even unpleasantly -- along with the very problematic world of Japanese health care c. 1940

The people in this genteel society are so well mannered -- but human bodies -- as always -- can be so terribly rude --- so how appropriate that the story ends with Yukiko having diarrhea on the train to Tokyo where she will finally join her aristocratic new husband.

Is this an accurate portrait of this time and place ? I have no idea -- but since the novel is so highly regarded -- I'll assume, for now, that it is.

And one interesting feature -- is the complete indifference of these well educated, well employed people to the global catastrophe that their government has been inflicting upon the people of China. They're not for it (as their German friends admire the national ambitions of Herr Hitler) -- they're not against it -- their only connection (up to this point - Feb. 1941) is the feeling that ostentatious, extravagent expenditure would be inappropriate in a time of national crisis.

All that matters is that Yukiko find a good husband -- so the Makioka name can still be treasured.


Postscript - -- the more this book settles into my memory -- the further that connubial concern recedes into unimportance -- and more I'm thinking about the social matrix being laid out -- one node at a time -- with equal if not greater importance given to all the characters who were half-Makioka (the 2 husbands) or not Makioka at all (the cast of potential husbands from various social situations) and especially the support staff: the servants who, like servants in European literature, know more about what's happening than their masters -- and that hair stylist who seems so patiently devoted to finding her customer a suitable match.

It's something of a "rock soup" -- where the main ingredient (the rock, Yukiko) is inedible -- but it's all the other ingredients that provide the nutrition.