My love for The Pillow Book has been well-documented, and when I started to count how many Japanese writers I have on my ‘loved books’ shelf, I must admit I was surprised. Latest addition are the short stories of Yoko Ogawa.
But while I didn’t pick her, because I’ve read her stories so recently, do note that cover quote from Hilary Mantel: ‘Original, elegant, very disturbing’, because that’s exactly what I might say about my own Japanese armchair exploring: Seven Japanese Tales by Junichiro Tanizaki, and translated by Howard Hibbett.
So while I loved these stories, they might not be for everyone. They date from between 1910 and 1959, and several are disturbing! For me the most wonderful – story of all was The Tattooer, about Seikichi, ‘an exceptionally skillful young tattooer’, who is searching for the perfect body for his art. Along the way, the power play between tattooer and ‘client’ is explored so beautifully and viscerally, that I couldn’t help but shudder physically while reading:
But then one day he catches sight of a ‘woman’s bare milk-white foot peeping out beneath the curtains of a department palanquin’. Finding the owner of the foot becomes a passion, and when he does, he finds no shrinking violet:
So why did I love this story so much? I’ve been thinking about this. The whole reading 50 books challenge has certainly taken me out of my comfort zone, which is exactly what I wanted. I think it’s because these Seven Japanese Tales break many of our safe taboos but with the utmost control, and as Hilary Mantel says of Yoko Ogawa, elegance.
Any cruelty in these stories, and there is, is integral to the whole story, to the characters, to the time, and to the balance between the characters, and within themselves too, as opposed to being the main hook or for the sake of sensationalism. I’m suddenly realising that I haven’t read much of this side of human nature, and yet it’s part of us. How much we accept it, or even see it around us, is of course individual, but it could be argued that it’s the writer’s job to look at the whole of humanity.
And, as I’m finding out to my cost, one book is leading to another.
In his introduction, Howard Hibbett talks about the debt Junichiro Tanizaki owes to the Japanese classic, The Tale of Genji, written as is The Pillow Book by a woman, Lady Murasaki, born in 978, and recognised still as the supreme classic of Japanese literature. So how could I resist…
And I can’t do a post about Japan, without mentioning the charity, Cocora Charity my sister, Mary Atkinson, is involved in to help the victims of the recent Tsunami. Please click here to find out why the heart!