Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu part 1.

I am slowly working through this book, which is the version translated by Arthur Waley. At the moment I am half way through.

To my surprise, although this book was written more than a thousand years ago in Japan, there are some aspects which might be called post-modern For instance, although written subjectively in the third person, and concentrating almost exclusively on the point of view of the central character, Genji, the narrator, 'Lady Murasaka' sometimes comments to the reader in the same way that John Fowles is famous for doing. It would make a tedious story, she says, so I'm not going to dwell on it. In other places she asks the reader (or herself), where was I? Then, reminding herself, carries on with her tale.

Some reviewers, I have noticed, have found the main character distasteful, but I find him interesting. I think it is important to look at him within his time and position at the Japanese court, and not allow modern sensibilities and ideas of sexual and social equality get in the way. Yes, he is a serial philanderer, and extremely fickle, but at least he feels each doomed love affair deeply, and he is certainly persistent, and doesn't give up until the woman in question is beside him.

I think the aspect of the work I am enjoying the most is that I am learning so much about Japanese society of around 1000 AD. Journeys are dictated by the position of the stars, conversations are invariably quotations from well-known poetry or complex metaphors. It was, I guess, an exclusive cultural code, and anyone not privy to their refined world would not understand. It enables notes to be carried by servants with impunity.

Reading the book has encouraged me to look at the costumes of the time, and I find (from this very interesting article by Sarah M Harvey) that it was common for many layers to be worn, sometimes over 40, and these layers were all in the form of various long flowing robes, some of them tied to the body with a sash, the antecedent of the kimono and obi. On their feet they wore uncomfortable-looking sandals, some of these raised on platforms. As with many examples of ancient dress, I keep wondering how they managed to attend to everyday tasks; how could they scrub the floors, put out the rubbish, wring out the washing with those long voluminous sleeves, and all those layers so insecurely held together and liable to come apart.


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