Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Japan and the Modern Novel

I refer to Will Durant, "The Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage", New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954; and the December 31, 1999 Millenium special edition of the Economist.

Murasaki no-Shikibu, the author of the world's first novel, lived in Japan between 975 and 1025 CE. Born into the Fujiwara clan as the daughter of a provincial bureaucrat, she was widowed four years after her marriage. Murasaki's aristocratic background enabled her to join the royal court. She turned to writing in response to her personal loss and studiously kept a diary. Her real identity is unknown, Murasaki Shikibu being a pen name. As an attendant to the Empress Akiko at the Heian court, she kept copious notes of the events and personalities of her time. This provided the material for that work of historical fiction - the Genji Monogatari (Gossip of Genji) in 1001 CE.

She writes of an imagined prince - Genji whose good looks exceeded his morals and who passed from one lover to another with versatality. Genji was the son of a Japanese emperor by his favorite concubine. A dashing prince, he was a woman's idea of a man - all sentiment and seduction. Genji had the intelligence, the charm and the libido to match. Murasaki portrays the complex psychology of the individuals at the royal court and weaves a narrative that revolves around their inner conflicts. She explores a fast-receding time and memory in the lives and loves of her characters. The novel is grand in its conception, graceful in its expression. But beneath the sketch is a brooding interpretation of life, one that is all too cognizant of its transitoriness and fleeting brevity. There is pathos, regret and a refined sensitivity. The story ends with Genji at 52 planning to retire to a mountain temple aware by now of the emptiness of life.

The male literati in Japan had traditionally used the sophisticated Chinese calligraphy. Murasaki introduced a new literary genre by relying on the simpler Japanese phonetic syllabary. The comparison could be made to the stenographer's short-hand. Most women were not tutored in the Chinese classics and Murasaki's was a feminine diction. She continued to write and the novel ran into many volumes. Many ladies-in-waiting sought her evolving narrative, even stealing unrevised pages for a preview. Murasaki ran out of paper and laid her hands upon the sacred sutras in a Buddhist temple, sacrilegiously using them for manuscript. The printing press was introduced in Japan in the 1700s. The book had become an even bigger hit.

I recommend the Genji Monogatari. The woman's journal has a distinct more intuitive flavor to it, one that offers insights into the complexities of life. It has a perceptive feel and richness that broadens ones experience. The novel has a timeless quality, so classical and yet contemporary.

On a related note, my greatest regret was the loss in Jaffna of what was perhaps the last surviving Tamil manuscript of "Urutira Kanikaiyar Katha Sara Tirattu". This was the autobiography of an early 19th century temple-courtesan by the name of Tirumati Anjukam in colonial Jaffna. "Urutira Kanikaiyar" translated into English means "nautch-dancer" or Devadasi. Unfortunately, little is known of that vanished era replaced with the tumult and chaos of today.


Tehmina Rehman said...

"A woman's idea of a man - all seduction and sentiment". Said who??? We demand intelligence and fidelity instead - sometimes lacking in the male species.

doubtinggaurav said...


Was that a proposal ? ;-)


Sorry , but could not resist it.



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