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Friday, March 20, 2009

The Tale of Genji — The Beginning

Right then, by popular demand.

For actual information on the book and its publication, go here.

There are of course other editions and versions... and given how they all seem to be translations or interpretations, they will have rather major differences between them. I picked up this one because it seemed the longest, had been around for a while, appeared to be keeping to the original better than the older translation by Waley and just somehow more appealing than the other long translation published by Penguin. Its hardback edition versus the paperback by Penguin also tilted decision in its favour.

I did read the introduction (I know, how many people do that really?! But this is what working in publishing does to you. You really do get hooked to the smallest thing about books) — I shall be referring to the introduction in between because it gives an overlay of the book and I feel it would be better to refer to it in relevant places than finish it off at once. Oh btw, the introduction is a very well-written one. Next they have Note on Topography, Note on the Text, Select Bibliography followed by the Chronology.

I loved how they've done the layout for the Chronology. They've spread it across two pages and alongside the date, they have a section for Author's Life, then a Literary Context and finally a Historical Events section. They've used small caps for the headings and it is very appealing to the eye. The one thing that puzzles me is, this is the second instance I have seen of the beginning of things being measured against the spread of Islam. As in, they take the spread of Islam as the starting point of anything... can anyone throw any light on this? Why is it that important? Wasn't Hinduism in existence long before that?

In the 50 pages that I have finished, I have covered two chapters (I'm taking this slowly because this is a book that demands to be read at ease, at leisure. It's literature, to be savoured. Not a thriller to be finished soon as you can so you know the end).

The basic premise is that this is a book about the life of Genji, who is a prince by birth but leads the life of a commoner. The first chapter describes how his father, the emperor is so deeply in love with one of the women at his court, someone not of a very high rank, that he comes dangerously close to throwing off his imperial status and duties for her sake. The lady meanwhile suffers much at the hands of the other courtiers for being so favoured. In all fairness, she isn't a woman who uses her wiles to attract the attention of the emperor but someone very virtuous and beautiful and deserving of such devotion — sadly only not in a position that would silence her adversaries. She has a son by the emperor but slowly falls victim to an illness that makes it very difficult for her to perform her duties at court and removes to her mother's house, away from the court. After a while she succumbs to her illness and the emperor is left heart broken and grieving.

The boy meantime, is being raised by his grandmother and when the emperor recovers somewhat from his loss, he begs with the lady to send his son to court so that he may give the child the advantages an emperor is capable of and because having the son near him alleviates his pain in some measure. And thus our hero comes to live at the court. Being the son of a woman thus despised, one would expect him to be shunned by one and all. But being possessed of a countenance so pleasing and charming, he is much adored by everyone present. The empress, mother to the heir apparent, too softens somewhat on encountering this beautiful child, setting aside her worries about the child usurping her son's position as heir apparent.

Meanwhile, the emperor summons to court the relation of another woman at court who is said to very closely resemble the love he lost. Genji takes to her immediately — one cannot say if this is due to her countenance or because she reminds him of his dead mother. Yearning to be near her always, Genji has to eventually learn that there cannot exist free interaction between them as he grows up and she is obliged to use the screen used for conducting meetings between members of opposite sexes.

As he grows older, Genji's initiation ceremony is performed by the emperor with much splendour, just as if it were the heir apparents. And yet, realising that Genji cannot be promised the life of someone born nobly, the emperor decides to make him a commoner and appoint him at the court, and hus gives him the name 'Genji'.

Genji's somewhat high standing prompts his marital alliance with the daughter of the Minster of the Right. However, as his bride is older than him and he does not have an evident connection to her, this leads to him spending much time at court and, if the rumours are to be believed, having as many affairs as he can be bothered to.

The proof of his infidelity is presented when Genji goes to stay at the house of a court official later and seduced the young step-mother of the official while there. And, the next night, when she refuses his advances, her younger brother.

There is a dialogue between Genji, his brother-in-law and two lesser court appointees in the chapter detaling the kinds of women there are, the perfect woman, and why the said women do not meet the requirement for being the perfect women. A dialogue that would get the goat of feminists all over for being a rather condescending and shallow appraisal of women in those times.

The thing that I found somewhat odd about the period spoken about here is that everyone seemed to be having affairs with everyone else rather openly. Or rather, supposedly secretly. The women seem to be decorative pieces, even when serving at the court and having duties. Also, every character seems rather young. Age referred to in the work is the number of years that the person has seen rather than the actual period of twelve months that is counted as a year. So a child that is said to be of three years is perhaps actually of the age of 18 months or two years.

In the rather short space of two chapters, we see the transformation in the hero that the introduction forewarns us about. Genji goes from being the perfect young protagonist possessing all the virtues imaginable, to a questioning young adult in whose character the cracks are beginning to appear.

What do YOU think of it, thus far?


  1. Interesting as Rayshma says...

    will pick up the book, I guess... :)

  2. talking of japani books... have u read 'an artist of the floating world'? by kazuo ishiguro... if i r'ber both right, that is. i like his writing style... haven't read this one.. but it's on my list-to-read.

  3. intriguing. pliss to continue

  4. Rayshma: Yes but it's going to be slow going. And I did check out the book... I really enjoyed 'The Remains of the Day'. will be a while before I take up this one though.

    Pixie: :) Be warned it's rather long!

    La vida Loca: Aye aye! Will do as and when I resume reading :)

  5. I have something for you on my blog.

  6. I think I might pick up the book... sounds interesting.