July 11, 2010

Some Prefer Nettles (Tanizaki Junichirō)








1. Every worm to his taste ...

Kaname and Misako, husband and wife, couldn't bear their relationship anymore. They decided to separate. Misako fell in love with another man; and Kaname, feeling no attachment to his wife, condoned it. Both agreed they need to divorce each other. Everything was cool, but always, always, there's a hitch. It's Japan in early 20th century. The ties of family and tradition are strong ties that bind and must not be put asunder. 

Some Prefer Nettles is Tanizaki's silent novel of marital woes. The couple at the center of the story is besieged by their own falling out of Japanese customs and ceremonies. The age-old behaviors must not be circumvented by newly found freedom from attachment and convention. How can they escape from their marriage obligations when they have a young son; when the wife Misako has a strong-willed father who is a staunch defender of tradition, culture, and propriety; when the patriarchal society frowns upon such things as Western influences (like jazz music and western fashion); and when any indication of "loose behavior" is probable cause for scandal and disgrace?

Tanizaki's novel would have been ordinary soap opera material had it not been for his masterly use of details. His depiction of insular world of puppet plays, of geishas and mistresses, and of the contrasting refinements in the cities of Tokyo and Osaka, place the story into a cultural context and in a dramatic light that sublimates all the tension and conflict into a dizzying calmness. The characters are so precise in their barbaric gentleness. They move with the grace of the bourgeoisie, but their inner identity crises are just as crude as modern humanity's.

Misako's old father and his mistress O-hisa, thirty years his junior, provide a counterpoint to the young couple's increasing alienation from each other. The chemistry between the old man and his mistress, manufactured from the old man's insistence of his mistress's learning the refinements of wearing traditional clothing and playing specific strains of the traditional koto music, is an easy contrast to the deepening rift between Kaname and Misako. The two couple's relationships play out two cultural responses to the influence of modernity: full loyalty to the native tradition and rejection of native tradition in favor of freer and more liberal attitudes. Thus, the novel has been seen as an East-West clash of values, but clearly it is the pull of globalization and cultural diffusion that subverts any age-old notion of what is right and wrong. Acceptable values are as unstable as tectonic plates.

It is noteworthy in this novel that the personal confrontations are made during dinner, be it in front of a puppet drama or at home. Tanizaki suffused the story with native color and set design, as if putting his characters on stage, allowing them to wear masks at their leisure but their undeniable reactions to their situations and their surroundings betray the color of their motives. The surface calm in the story does not contradict the complacent behavior of Kaname and Misako. The very indecision of the two inadvertently prolongs their agonies whenever they postpone and again postpone their wish to separate.

"Every worm to his taste ..." - the novel's epigraph announces. Some would rather eat something hardly appetizing. What one consumes, one finds out too late, is not always the edible kind. Even the itchy worms are prone to allergy themselves.


2. ... some prefer to eat nettles.

The very surface calm of the prose is a cultivated style that Tanizaki must have developed through a keen observation of Japanese mores. Tanizaki is adept at exposing the interior motives of the characters. The characters' unchaste desires and vices are not used as a pretext for undermining their humanities, but rather the interplay of their very flaws and their tenacious hold to their beliefs and to traditions (or otherwise) prove that the writer is not just a writer but is a novelist. Tanizaki is a novelist of human foibles and follies, quirky precepts and perceptions, and modern guises and disguises.

The various puppet plays and the indigenous music are central to the story. They are not there to, cliché intended, lament the passing of an age. The dramatic arts of puppetry and music are well integrated into the story structurally and thematically. Watching the puppets and listening to the accompanying music are ways for the two characters (Kaname and Misako's father) to reflect on their own perception of tradition. For Kaname this is a welcome digression from his marriage, another way to lose himself to the music and decadence of the theater. For the old-fashioned but assertive father of Misako, it is a way to demonstrate the supremacy of local customs, attitudes, and the arts over the increasingly modern and modernized ideals. Misako would rather forgo these forms and appearances. She wants instead to escape from it all and rendezvous with her lover.

The novel thus uses the dramatic art of puppetry, as well as the acts of dining out and touring theaters, to reflect on the states of the characters; their own inhibitions and pretensions played out in front of them. The power of puppet show as a mimetic digression is subtly derived also from the inherent purpose of digression: as a delaying tactic or filler or an escape from the stifling reality of marriage problems. A reader may be puzzled by this seemingly academic or gratuitous application of digression, egging on the novelist to provide the closure to the story, to move on, to get it over with. The characters seem to be frozen in time, immobilized by their helplessness and timidity.

A puppet audience may try to second guess a puppeteer's actions and gestures, even if the stories in puppet shows are already predetermined. Reading this novel is like watching a puppeteer move the limbs of his puppet creations. The puppet-characters in the story want to get on with life, without the gnawing dread of the unwanted outcomes of final separation. The lengthy discourse on the fading puppet art shows in Osaka corresponds not only to the fading attachment of the young couple to each other but also to the growing insularity of old tradition being exposed to an explosion of new wants and needs, to an implosion of new points of view and attitudes.

A sensible worm feeds on what she likes. But sometimes a worm cannot choose her own meal. Tragedy: sometimes a worm is a casualty (caught by an early bird). Comedy: sometimes the worm has no appetite. Tragedy: a worm will purposely go on hunger strike. Comedy: a worm will turn into a butterfly. Tragedy: a worm will prefer to eat nettles. Comedy: a worm will prefer to eat nettles. 


(Image: Painting by Pablo Gallo)

6 comments:

  1. I read and really liked this book a few months ago-your post was very insightful-you might try Quicksand next if you have not read it-PS my family and I were in Puerto Princessa recently-beautiful place

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  2. Rarely do I read a review so excellently structured that it sure as heck makes me want to run to the nearest bookstore and grab a copy of the book in question. But since I know for a fact that the nearest bookstore doesn't carry it, might I ask where you got your copy, that's if the book is available locally? I'd very much like to own the Vintage Classics edition.

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  3. Thanks, mel. Great to hear you enjoyed it here in Puerto Princesa. I’ll certainly look up Quicksand. I’m now on to The Makioka Sisters (which is shaping up to be another great read). I searched for your review and agree with you that the ending is clever and mind-provoking.

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  4. Thanks, Aldrin. The book itself is a study in structural perfection. Got my copy from BookMooch, having no decent bookstore to run to around here. :) A really fine read so hope you find a copy soon. Japanese books I think are fairly available in the specialty bookstores, thankfully for us.

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  5. I was interested in the plot of the story from when I first began reading your review; the very issues of family, love, marriage are fascinating to me. But, I especially liked this paragraph of yours:

    "Tanizaki's novel would have been ordinary soap opera material had it not been for his masterly use of details. His depiction of insular world of puppet plays, of geishas and mistresses, and of the contrasting refinements in the cities of Tokyo and Osaka, place the story into a cultural context and in a dramatic light that sublimates all the tension and conflict into a dizzying calmness. The characters are so precise in their barbaric gentleness. They move with the grace of the bourgeoisie, but their inner identity crises are just as crude as modern humanity's."

    and the way you went on further to explain about the puppeteer aspect. Wonderful! I'm really encouraged to read this book now. Thanks for your excellent, thought provoking review.

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  6. Thanks for your comment, Bellezza. I'm glad you liked the review. And thank you for hosting the Japanese challenge. It's bound to be a year-long treat for us discovering books from Japan.

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