Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Monday, October 26, 2009

"Arrowroot" by Junichiro Tanizaki-

Arrowroot by Junichiro Tanizaki (1931, trans. by Anthony Chambers is kindly included by Vintage Press in the same book as The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi.  (This is a decision of Vintage unrelated to the works or the intentions of the author but it does add a lot of value to the book and I appreciate it.)

Arrowroot is now the oldest Japanese work I have posted on, published for the first time 78 years ago.    It is about the search of a man whose parents died when he was quite young for his maternal roots.   The story is set in Japan in 1910 in Tokyo and Osaka.   The narrator is deeply involved in The Reading Life.   He sees the world through the classic dramas and epics of 15th to 17th century Japan.    Everything is somehow formulized through that prism for him.  When he sees something or meets someone he is reminded of a play he has seen or a poem he has read and then launches into an internal monologue linking one literary work to another then another.    We learn of a number of the great works of classical Japanese literature.  

The narrator is an extremely cultured man who can only marginally relate to those below his level.   When he does relate to them, he sees them as minor characters in a Kabuki play.   The narrator was orphaned and raised by relatives starting at a young age.   He decides one day to seek out his maternal roots in Osaka.    When he goes back he finds out that at about age 13 his mother was sold by her parents to a business he can identify only as being in the "pleasure quarters" of Osaka.   This might mean she was sold to a tea house as a kitchen worker or was to be trained as a Geisha but most likely it means she  became a prostitute at age 13.   Somehow through a great stroke of good luck his mother married a wealthy man.   She died only a few years after having her son, our narrator.   He finds out his family were makers of fine paper, from arrowroot.   He sees a girl in her late teens making paper and he tells her family he wants to marry her.    She reminds him of a selfless heroine in one of his dramas.  

To me the fun of this work is that it shows a man living completely The Reading Life in a literature in which I have no home but I can totally relate to the narrator nevertheless.   You feel his love for reading and you know it is the most important thing in his life.   Like other characters whose Reading Life I have posted on, he is both shielded from the world by his reading and allowed to experience the world more deeply by it.  

There is a good bit of information about Japanese religion in this story (40 pages).  We are treated to a wonderful series of fox images while being given an education in the role of the fox in Japanese culture.   The treatment of the religious beliefs of the common people of Osaka (I think Osaka was seen as more true to classical Japanese ideals than Tokyo in this narrative) also seems an oblique commentary on the sterility of Confucian dictates.   Magic permeates throughout the world of the story.   The extreme antirealism of classical drama in which the narrator is absorbed allows him not just to reinterprert events as a No Play but see them that way in the first place.  

Arrowroot a wonderful story about a lover of The Reading Life.    What our narrator reads maybe alien to most of us but he is a brother in the life.  Yesterday I bought three more novels by Tanizaki.  

He lived 1886 to 1965.   He published his first work in 1910 and at once was considered a major literary figure.   He even worked briefly in the silent films of the era as a dramatist.   He was exempt from military service in WWII due to his age.   At his death he was considered the greatest living Japanese writer.   


Suko said...

Isn't this interesting! Isn't this also the perfect book for The Reading Life!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I am not at all familiar with this book, but it sounds WONDERFUL! thanks for the great review Mel.

Anonymous said...

I just heard Tanizaki mentioned by Chasing Bawa. I revealed how that is a new to me author (boy, do I feel dumb!) and now here he is again. I really need to read something by him! Thanks for bringing this book to my attention.

ds said...

Mel, this sounds fascinating. I *looks down at floor* have had a collection of short stories by Tanizaki on my reading pile for a very very very long time. It has just moved to the top. So I thank you doubly for this review: for the introduction to a new story, and for the nudge to read an older book!

Mel u said...

Suko-I was so happy to be able to tie a Japanese work totally into the theme of my blog-literary presentations of the reading life-

Diane-thanks-to me it is wonderful -also in the old fashion sense of the word meaning creating a feeling of awe-

dolcebelleza-Taniaki was new to me also until a few weeks ago-your Challenge has enriched my Reading Life so much-

ds-I do hope you will be reading this collection of short stories soon as I would love to read your reactions to his work-I will be I think reading "Woman of the Dunes" in November-

M. C. M said...

the book sounds amazing. i'm going to look for it and read it!

Mel u said...

M C Mihjazi-I would read this and the other story in this book as my first Tanizaki-I am on my 6th work of his now-thanks for stopping by

Sandra said...

I haven't read this one. You certainly make it sound interesting. I will check my library for it first-fat chance I think. But I'm putting it on my tbr list for the Japanese Literature challenge. Thanks for reviewing it.

Mel u said...

Sandra- I hope your library has it as I would love to see your thoughts on the book-thanks for visiting my blog