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

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi

The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi (1971, trans. from the Japanese by John Bester, 203 pages)

Fumiko Enchi (1905 to 1986-Tokyo) was the daughter of a famous scholar of classical Japanese literature.   She acknowledged as one of her strongest literary influence the work of Junichiro Tanizaki  which I did  see.    During a bombing raid in WWII the house of her and her husband was destroyed along with all their possessions.    She was educated at home by tutors and at 13 was reading Oscar Wilde, Edgar Alan Poe,  and classical Japanese literature.    She was very much into the reading life.

The Waiting Years took Enchi nearly eight years to write.   It is a wonderful basically flawless work of art.   The novel is set in the home of a Samurai family in late 19th century Japan.   The husband is a middle level, maybe a higher at times, government official.   The family is quite comfortable and can afford several servants but they are not among the truly rich or elite.    The novel's center is Tumo, the wife, about ten years younger than her husband.   One day the husband comes to her with some instructions for her to carry out.   He wants her to find a new maid for the household that will also serve as his concubine.    She suppresses her anger and jealousy as he explains to her it is simply that a man of his standing is expected to have at least one concubine and if he does not it casts doubts on the families financial status and looks bad for him to his peers.   There were functionaries whose served the needs of those who sought out concubines/maids and Tomo went to one of them with the money her husband had given her.    She tries to control her emotions as she imagines her husband sleeping with the various girls she interviews.   These girls were basically offered for sale by their families.   Once funds were paid for them they were more or less slaves and certainly had no right to leave their masters.   It was a bit shocking to learn that the typical age of these girls was 13 to 15.   The girls trained in household duties and most also service the sexual needs of the master of the house.   We see Tomo and the girl develop a relationship even though they have every reason to dislike and distrust each other.   It is not openly stated but the husband  seems to be very brutal in his relations with both his wife and the new maid.   

The novel covers at least 40 years in the life of the family.   In each chapter we are given a view of a different aspect of their developing lives.   Soon the husband feels a need for a second then a third concubine.   All of the women are bought as young girls and live in the household.   We see the tensions between the wife and the concubines.   One of the concubines seems to have some power over the husband and they urge her to have the wife, who has now lost her looks and is quite heavy,  displaced from the household.   

Along the way we meet their children and grandchildren.   I could not help but laugh when I found out who the real father of the children of one of the concubines really was.   We see the shifting relationships of the women over time.    We see that  the women have no power other than what ever emotional hold they have over the husband.   

   The Waiting Years is a very subtle, cerebral work that takes us deeply into the lives of the women (and the husband) in a late 19th century Samurai family.     I hope to post on another of her novels in July, Masks.  She wrote many novels all of which center on female characters trying to find away towards self-actualization in a male dominated society.   Sadly only  three of her novels have been translated into English.   I recommend this book with the only reservations that if you find Jane Austin, The Brontes, Tanizaki or George Sand boring you may have the same reaction to this book.

The translator, John Bester (1927-) is one of the foremost translators of the Japanese novel into English-having translated over a dozen works.   He is a graduate of the London School of African and Oriental Studies.   (From now on I will try to post a bit about the translators of the works I read.)

Mel U


Bellezza said...

The whole idea of concubines is so foreign (and upsetting) to me! I can't imagine my husband sleeping with several other women; I don't know how women through the centuries did.

Your review reminded me of several novels: Lolita, in that their ages were so young!;
Waiting, by Hai Jin, where a woman waits for her married lover with dire consequences; and even The Good Earth where the faithful wife makes room for the beautiful new wife.

Already, you're leading the pack of us, Mel, in what you're reading and reviewing in the first two weeks of the JLC4. Me? I'm working through Endo's Silence especially for Tanabata's discussion on the 28th of June. Will you be joining us?

p.s. You and I might have a tie between who changes their blog template the most. ;)

Astrid (Mrs.B) said...

I'd love to read this! Sounds like a beautiful book. Belezza mentioned the novel waiting which is also a beautiful novel I also highly recommend.

Arti said...

I'm all amazed at your repertoire of Japanese lit. or any other sort of lit. You're really one well-read blogger. Thanks for this post, which indeed sounds cerebral, one quality I look for in a novel. I'm new to Bellezza's Japanese Lit Challenge, and just started reading my first Oe title... of which you've read 9! You've kept an amazing blog here... I don't know why it has taken me so long, but I'm glad I've finally landed on your wonderful site.

Suko said...

This book sounds like a real eye opener (at least to me). It's hard to imagine that a book which focuses on concubinage is cerebral--but I will take your word for it. Excellent review, Mel.

On a different note, I've finished reading Out and hope to post on it soon.

Cat said...

I really do need to read some Japanese literature. Your reviews are always so interesting - I have an award for you..

Tamara said...

Mel, what a great review. If only we had more time for reading :( I am looking forward to reading all your wonderful JLC reviews, cos I know I wont get to read as many as you. I like that you've been able to share with us the central themes of this book, and that there's so much to learn about the lives and roles of the women of Japan. See you soon.

Anonymous said...

This is a very heavy book. Good for you to have finished it. I like your review and this is extent of my willingness to read such heavy book.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful review. The Waiting Years is one of my favorite Japanese novels. I reread it often. I'm also loving your Mansfield reviews as I love short stories. Keep up the good work.

Elizabeth said...

I am just starting this novel, and can tell it's going to be one that sticks in my mind for a long time. I agree with your description of cerebral - in the same way that Tomo must proceed with her intellect rather than her emotion. I'm excited to go on the journey of this novel.