Sunday, March 15, 2009

Genji Monogatari Book Review by Kevin Ross Nera



Kevin Ross D. nera

Iv - curie

“The moon I love has left the sky,
And where ‘tis hid I cannot tell;
I search in vain, in vain I try
To find the spot where it may dwell.”

I. Introduction

Considered as one of the greatest classics of all time, it is deemed as Japan’s magnus opus of prose narrative. Written nearly 1000 years ago by no other than Murasaki Shikibu, this 54 chapter long romance is set within the Heian period of Japan. It is written in pure Japanese thereby serving as a testament to the rich, unique culture of Medieval Japan. Several translations of the book are published but so far Edward G. Seidensticker's work has been considered the best and even required two volumes due the length of this timeless romance. Critics and scholars worldwide label it as perhaps the earliest true novel in the history of the world. As a testament to this, the novelist Yasunari Kawabata said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: "The Tale of Genji in particular is the highest pinnacle of Japanese literature. Even down to our day there has not been a piece of fiction to compare with it".

Murasaki Shikibu was a Japanese novelist, poet, and a maid of honor of the imperial court during the Heian period. She is best known as the author of The Tale of Genji, written in Japanese between about 1000 and 1008, one of the earliest novels in human history.
"Murasaki Shikibu" was not her real name, which is unknown. Some scholars have postulated that her given name might have been Fujiwara Takako, recorded as a name of a lady-in-waiting ranked shōji on the 29th day of the 1st month, Kankō 4 (February 19, 1007) according to Midō Kampaku Ki, a diary written by Fujiwara no Michinaga. Her own diary, The Murasaki Shikibu Diary, states that she was nicknamed "Murasaki" ("purple wisteria blossom") at court, after a character in The Tale of Genji. "Shikibu" refers to her father's position in the Bureau of Ceremony (shikibu-shō).
It was the custom among aristocrats in those days to call a court lady by a combined appellative taken from a) her clan name and b) some court office belonging either to her or some close relative.
Lady Murasaki Shikibu was born about 973 in Kyoto, Japan. She was born in a family of minor nobility and a member of the northern branch of the Fujiwara clan.
Murasaki's mother died while she was a child, so Murasaki was raised, contrary to customs of the time, by her father Fujiwara no Tametoki, a scholar and officer of the imperial court. During Heian-era Japan, couples lived separately and children were raised by the mother and her family. Also contrary to customs of the time, her father gave her a male education. Men were taught kanji and classical Chinese literature as the requisite culture, while women were taught kana and poetry. Her father praised her intelligence and ability, but lamented that she was "born a woman". She was married in her early 20s and had one child, Daini no Sanmi, who was a poet in her own right and believed to have written the latter parts of the romance.
At the royal court, she was the lady-in-waiting for Empress Shoshi (Akiko) and may have been hired by Fujiwara no Michinaga to serve the Empress.
Murasaki died either in 1014, when records show that her father suddenly returned to Kyoto from his governor's mansion, or between 1025 and 1031, when she would have been in her mid-50s, fairly old by Heian standards.
The only other writer which could have rivaled her work during the Heian period would be Sei Shōnagon, the author of The Pillow Book, a collection of lists, gossip, poetry, observations, complaints and anything else she found of interest during her years in the court. Murasaki Shikibu wrote about Shōnagon in her diary, The Murasaki Shikibu Diary.

II. Summary of Content

The tale of Genji is roughly divided into three parts.
Genji's rise and fall
Youth, chapters 1–33: Love, romance, and exile
Success and setbacks, chapters 34–41: A taste of power and the death of his beloved wife
The transition (chapters 42–44): Very short episodes following Genji's death
Uji, chapters 45–54: Genji's official and secret descendants, Niou and Kaoru

Summary: Genji’s rise and fall

Genji, the hero of the tale, is an Emperor's son by an Intimate who has lost her father and so has no support of any kind beyond the Emperor's personal devotion to her. It is not enough. The Emperor longs to appoint Genji Heir Apparent over his firstborn, who is the son of a Consort, but he knows that the court would never stand for it. He therefore decides to remove Genji entirely from the imperial family by giving him a surname (the Japanese Emperors have none), so that he can serve the realm as a commoner and a senior government official.
Genji is married to the daughter of a particularly powerful courtier. He and his wife continue to live separately as was the custom during their time. He has no recollection of her mother but he hears that his father's future Empress (Fujitsubo) resembles her closely, and in his earliest adolescence he comes to adore her.
Due to the disparity of their age, he finds another woman. He finds Murasaki, who is Fujitsubo's niece and resembles her, is about ten when he first sees her. He brings her up personally, and when she is old enough he marries her.
In chapter 2 ("The Broom Tree") the teenage Genji listens while three young men share the secrets of their love lives. Later in the same chapter he goes exploring, and in several succeeding ones he begins more affairs. However, the narrator insists several times that Genji never forgot any woman he had once known, and the tale bears this out.
Genji possesses such wonderful traits that entice women to him. He is devastatingly handsome, charming, and eloquent combined with such wit in dealing with women. As time goes by, he increases in rank and political opposition increases against him. Being himself, he cannot resist making love to one of the daughters (Oborozukiyo) of his chief political enemy, and disaster strikes when the gentleman finds him in bed with her. Unfortunately, the girl's older sister (the Heir Apparent's mother) is not only powerful but evil tempered. In her outrage she sets out immediately to destroy Genji, and he has to retreat into self-exile.
He goes to Suma, a stretch of shore on the Inland Sea that is now within the city limits of Kobe, and since he is in disgrace he must leave Murasaki, his true love, behind. The narrative dwells at length on the poignancy of his suffering as he languishes in the wilds. Then a great storm threatens his very life. He has strange dreams of his late father and of other supernatural beings. As soon as the storm begins to subside, an eccentric and wealthy gentleman (the Akashi Novice) arrives by boat to invite him to be his guest at a place called Akashi which Genji accepts.
At Akashi, Genji comes to know the gentleman's daughter (the lady from Akashi), who is pregnant when at last he is called back to the City. He already has a son (Yugiri) by his first wife, who died some years ago, and of course there is also his secret son by Fujitsubo, the future Emperor Reizei. This new child, his last, is a girl, and in time, after Reizei's long reign, she will be the Empress. It is she who will lift Genji toward the supreme good fortune of a ranking non-imperial noble: that of being the grandfather of an Emperor.
After his triumphant return from exile, Genji becomes a man of power. Although still susceptible to the charms of certain women, he does not commit any new affairs.
Genji's only serious courtship between chapters 14 and 33 is addressed to a Princess (Asagao), with whom he clearly had some sort of relationship as a very young man which does not last long, and is a complete failure.
By chapter 33 ("New Wisteria Leaves") Genji has risen to extraordinary heights. He has built a magnificent complex of four interconnected mansions, each linked with one of the four seasons and housing a lady important to him, on land that seems to have passed to him from an extremely distinguished lover, the Rokujo Haven (Rokujo no Miyasudokoro, now deceased). This is his incomparable Rokujo ("Sixth Avenue") estate. More remarkably, the Emperor, his secret son, has appointed him Honorary Retired Emperor.
Then, in chapter 34 ("Spring Shoots I") Genji responds to an appeal from his half brother, Retired Emperor Suzaku who wants Genji to marry his favorite daughter which Genji agrees to. However, she lacks the rank that would allow her to be a wife even for an Honorary Retired Emperor.
When Murasaki becomes ill, Genji looks for her while a young man secretly makes love to Suzaku’s daughter. Genji soon finds out, and he is furious. She then bears a son named Kaoru and soon thereafter the lover dies of guilt and shame.
Murasaki dies two or three years later, in her early forties. Genji, then in his early fifties, survives her as a mere shell of his former self. It appears that after the reader sees him for the last time, he leaves the world, retires to a temple, and dies within a year or two.

III. Analysis of Text

Based from the translation of Kencho Suematsu, I would say that the writer’s style is more of realistic than anything. It is a mixture of the rich Japanese culture, the predominant Heian Court lifestyle and a revelation of society’s actions during their period. The focus on Genji, rather, on his innumerable love affairs, implies the state of discrimination between women and men at that time. The numerous mentions of concubines also serve as a testament to this. However, this sense of realism stems from the fact that the plot is not the mutual focus of this tale. It actually develops rather slowly because the focus lies on the individual character’s development and their emotions. This leads to a great development of all the dramatis personae. The realism also occurs as the events occur with such consistency especially with regards to character development despite the multitude o f characters. It almost seems as though it were a multiple biography. Genji’s love affairs, may also be described as a man’s weakness in finding the closest resemblance to one’s true love albeit, causing harm to others. This particular style of writing is elevated to greater heights due the fact that the writer is a woman. This is because this style and writing prowess is not attributed to women of their time because of the cultural aspects that are being taught to the different genders. Her raising by her father, seems to account for her foundations, which in turn is richly developed as she progresses in age and experience. However, I find her writing style as not being simple at all. Yes, it is extremely detailed but the length of the chapters and the text itself is probably due to the fact that some of the descriptions are rather superfluous as was stated by the emissions of some parts of the text by the translator.

I find that the style of writing is interesting as it goes deep within the emotional recesses of the characters as each unfolds their own share of experience and the amount of variety just goes to show the amount of creativity and the vast well of inspiration that the author draws from. I personally find Genji’s eloquence in dealing with all sorts of women as humorous and true to life that such sweet-talkers really do exist. The women of this tale also reflect the different types of character which can be found in them even up to this date.

The Heian culture is also well expressed due to the amount of poetry found within the regular conversations in order to convey their emotions. These poems include within them a great deal of the Japanese culture and without the footnotes, a normal reader unknowledgable of the culture would definitely be missing out on a lot of its essence. These four line poems, called Waka, earned it a place in the study of poetry.

In addition to this, the text contains a vast amount of allusions which are, thankfully, pointed out. Save from these points, it also contains a great deal of information regarding prior literature, mythological and fictional characters, Religion, Japanese beliefs and customs as well as other literary devices. It is by all means, a masterful classic written in pure Japanese language which proves the amount of talent that the writer has.

IV. Evaluation of the Text

The book, being written in pure Japanese, poses a great difficulty in translating. As such, when I have read it, it is evident that the structure of the sentences is different from the literature that I am familiar with. I also found great difficulty keeping track of all the characters as they are not in possession of their real names. The usage of titles, which was common among the aristocracy of their time, had been out of my palate due to the length and unfamiliarity of such terminologies to me. Aside from this, the descriptions which are truly vivid and depict real life also seem excessive in some parts which could tire out the impatient reader. In here, I am speaking for myself. It also contained some words which I did readily know the meaning. Some of which I understood through the use of context while others I just left out.

However, the main thing I liked about this text is the fact that it is a narration of experience. It is very easy to relate to and one can just put himself in the situation of the character. It’s apparent realism reflects the strengths and weaknesses of the human being. It is a great love story made complicated by the numerous affairs which Genji had wrought upon himself. What also interested me is the Chapter in which Genji supposedly dies. It is only a title Chapter with nothing as its content. Such ingenuity stimulates my mind although it also poses a few questions to me.

Was it really the way that the author had ended the story to end? Is it a reflection of the author’s life experiences? I am well aware that the author is greatly represented by one of the characterers, lady Violet. The usage of such a device to represent one’s self and personal experiences in one’s work is truly brilliant and served as a basis for works that came thereafter. The best thing about this work is the fact that it was written in the 10th to 11th century yet it remains as something one could relate to even if I live in the 21st century. The disparity of 1000 years or so is made negligible by the author’s writing prowess and the amount of human nature as is implied in the whole text.

The book has left out a little background on some of the characters as some just appear suddenly and become vital to the plot. The first chapter is a vivid description of the history and origins of Genji and I guess this had set the standards for the other characters as well.

The latter part of the text also becomes a subject of much debate as to the authorship as the inconsistencies also become more apparent as compared with the earlier parts. It is highly believed that the authorship passed down from Mother to daughter. However, this remains as a debatable notion subject for further discussions.

I have read only a very few books in my life which included the novels of Warcraft, the novels of Rizal, Greek Mythology and Bob Ong’s works. Therefore, I am no literary expert and usually take more time to realize and appreciate reading such works. However, I would say that The Tale of Genji interested me because I thought it was similar to Samurai X or some other Japanese Meiji Era war period text. Instead, I found myself with such a rich historical romance which in no way disappointed me.

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