Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Book Review of The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu
Author: Murasaki Shikibu (Translated by Edward G Seidensticker)
Publisher: Borzoi Book Alfred A Knopf
Type of book: Japan, Heian Court Era, wealth, generations, women, men, 800s-900s?, cloistered, marriage, love, courting
Year it was published: 900s?- 1000s? (Version I have 1976)
The Tale of Genji was written in the eleventh century by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady of the Heian court. It is universally recognized as the greatest masterpiece of Japanese prose narrative, perhaps the earliest true novel in the history of the world. Until now there has been no translation that is both complete and scrupulously faithful to the original text. Edward G Seidensticker's masterly rendering was first published in two volumes in 1976 and immediately hailed as a classic of the translator's art. It is here presented in one unabrdiged volume, illustrated through-out by woodcuts taken from a 1650 Japanese edition of The Tale of Genji
I think the characters in someways are three dimensional, although Genji in many ways tends to read like a Gary Stu character. (Sad childhood, gets everything he wants, etc.) but still he does make mistakes and does suffer pain from his consequences. The reader watches Genji through his life, from the time he is a young to a time he has his own children, and we also get the privilege of watching his "son" and "grandson". In all honesty my favorite characters were Genji, Kashiwagi and Kaoru. There is honestly a lot to talk about when it comes to both male and female characters, and a lot I didn't understand. I think I liked Genji perhaps because there is something gentle about him, and something ethereal, something that causes him to stand out from a typical man. Kashiwagi I liked because he is a tragic character, and Kaoru, I think its because he is like Kashiwagi. (Heian Japanese male or not, I had to admire, despite my annoyance, his devotion toward Oigimi.) I found Niou very annoying and half the time wondered that he's a spoiled character and jealous of Kaoru for no reason. I do wish that the book would have continued on to at least tell us if Kaoru managed to get together with Ukifune. (I really dont' understand why Ukifune likes Niou. Perhaps someone can explain it to?)
The world is changeable and undependable. Nothing stays the same.
This is in third person. At first its from Genji's point of view, then later it moves to Yugiri and Kashiwagi and way later Oigimi, Nakanokimi and Ukifune. In all honesty I liked the first half with Genji; the second or third part with Kaoru and Niou really frustrated me because it seemed that neither were getting what they desired and nothing was working out with the sisters. The story ends in mid-thought and right on what was supposed to be a climax, of Kaoru trying to "rescue" Ukifine from being a nun. I don't think I also appreciated how everyone rushed to become a nun/monk. Was the world so terrible that they had to sacrifice their lives? Also, I couldn't help but think of what would happen if everyone in Japan became a monk or nun. What would happen to people who will support them?
About this author
Murasaki Shikibu, or Lady Murasaki as she is sometimes known in English, 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 and most famous novels in human history. "Murasaki Shikibu" was not her real name; her actual name is unknown, though some scholars have postulated that her given name might have been Takako (for Fujiwara Takako). Her 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).
This is a story of life basically, and that the love affairs are not the same but are different; the only thing that's the same is the women's reluctance and what seems like rape. I actually loved the first part, the Genji and Kashiwagi part much better than Kaoru and Niou part. The book isn't easy to read and its incredibly long as well as complicated and poetic, so its not a casual one time read. (I read the unabridged translation by Seidensticker). We also see Genji making choices with consequences that last a long time, such as sleeping with his stepmother and begetting a son by her, or not treating the Rokujo lady in a right way and dealing with extremely painful consequences of that. I also enjoyed reading the poetry and how it was used to convey various emotions of sadness. Probably most people would find poetry off putting. (I don't read poetry to be honest.) But this poetry becomes a challenge to figure out what they are saying and what they are feeling as well. In a lot of ways, this is a very fascinating story and also a fascinating peek into the world that is long gone. I think many readers will dislike the fact that Genji is a playboy, or else they will try to put modern sensibilities on this historical novel. There are numerous things I felt uncomfortable with such as Genji marrying a woman he raised, or well, sleeping with certain women. There is also a strong Oedipus theme going on; such as Genji trying to substitute for his mother in forms of his stepmother and his stepmother's niece? I also think that Niou and Kaoru were meant for a separate book instead of being linked to Genji's stories. (Hints of Kaoru trying to find a woman that resembles the dead Oigimi.)
4 out of 5
(0: Stay away unless a masochist 1: Good for insomnia 2: Horrible but readable; 3: Readable and quickly forgettable, 4: Good, enjoyable 5: Buy it, keep it and never let it go.)