03 January 2023

Tanizaki's slow reveal


Devils in Daylight by Tanizaki Jun'ichiro, translated by J. Keith Vincent (New Directions, 2017)

I don't know who's going to kill whom. And even if I did, I wouldn't tell you the details over the telephone. What I can tell you is that this very night, at a certain location, a certain person is going to put an end to a certain someone else's life. This is all I have been able to get wind of so far. Of course I am not personally involved with the crime, so I am responsible neither for preventing it, nor for reporting it. But I want to watch it happen, in secret, without any of those involved knowing that I am there. And I would feel a lot better about it if you came with me. Doesn't that sound more enjoyable than staying home writing a novel?

Sonomura was not pulling the leg of his friend, the novelist (and the novel's narrator) Takahashi, although the latter had a suspicion the former might be imagining things, might be becoming a bit unhinged. Takahashi also admitted to the reader that his mental constitution was not all there at this time of year. It's murder we are talking here after all.

We are talking here about the premise of Devils in Daylight, Tanizaki Jun'ichiro's 1918 novel, with its surprisingly modernist treatment of a murder mystery that was also a kind of commentary on the nature of fiction. Tanizaki directly referenced Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Gold-Bug", borrowing the cryptography and secret code element from the American writer.

Tanizaki's strain of detective story was as viral as the American's. His amateur detectives (and witnesses to a crime) were witting voyeurs of murder. J. Keith Vincent's translation provided a consistent tone and voice that kept intact the pitch of anxiety and wild humor in the proceedings. Because we are reading a murder mystery patterned after or at least influenced by Poe, we are in the realm of infinite possibilities for moral and ethical degradation. Combine that with Tanizaki's cinematic and voyeuristic treatment of murder, we are assured that what we are about to witness is up to no good, in a good way.

What Tanizaki displayed in the actual act of murder was, of course, the power of the novel to withhold and dispense information at will—the slow reveal. Because the novel, unlike the film, could only reveal the situation one word at a time, we did not have the full view of the crime. We were just looking at the aperture of the camera one letter, word, sentence, and paragraph at a time. We did not have a full view of a crime in cold daylight. But as with the film, the murder proceeded one frame at a time, such that the violent procession of images were described in the text a scene at a time. But the novelist could also frame the shot and withheld the view of a certain image until the right timing.

I was so transfixed by the sight of this beautiful woman that until then I had failed to notice the enormous metal tub that sat on the right side of the room. The presence of such an object in the room was in fact even more mysterious than that of the camera, and I would surely have noticed it long before if the woman had not been there to distract me. It was the size of a Western-style bathtub, an oblong container, narrow but deep, covered in enamel, and it sat there, hulkingly, next to the veranda and the reed blinds.

The metal tub had to be introduced later, after the woman, after the murder accomplice, and after an (actual) camera in the lighted room. Everything else is filler, a distraction. Had we seen it in a movie, the bathtub might not have easily escaped our attention, with its "hulking" enamel presence. The gradual reveal had yet to introduce the murderee.

There was no doubt about it. No matter how you looked at it, the man's gaze was hovering on the woman's body, between her chest and lap. And not only that, the woman herself, who was also looking down, seemed to be staring at the same area on her own body. From what I could see at my angle, she extended her elbows outward and brought her hands together over her waist, as if she were sewing; she was in the process of fiddling with some kind of object that was resting there. Once I had noticed this, I began to discern the vague outlines of a black lump-like object on her lap. It was stock still and seemed to extend quite a ways forward in the shadow of her body.

"Could this be someone—a man—making a pillow of her lap?"

Just as this thought occurred to me, I was startled by a sudden thud, the sound of a hearty object being moved. The woman had turned her body toward the camera. And there, in her lap, was the head of a man looking upward, a corpse slumped over.

Takahashi the novelist then went on to say that he was unsure how he felt at that moment—"the feeling had gone far beyond fear, reducing me to an insensate numbness that was close to ecstasy ..." [Tanizaki's ellipsis]. The slow reveal gave way to cardiac recognition of a one-of-a-kind mise-en-scène.

I knew the body was a corpse not only because the eyes were open wide despite his prone position, but because the collar had been torn from the elegant tails he wore, and his neck was wrapped tightly in a piece of crimson silk crepe that looked like a woman's undergirdle. His hands were outstretched, as if caught in the throes of death reaching out for his soul as it escaped his body, and had reached the collar-piece of the woman's kimono, which was covered in a gaudy embroidered image of wisteria flowers the color of celadon. She had inserted her hands in the corpse's armpits, and twisted her body around to reposition it as it lay there like a dead tuna.

The novelist and his friend were so affected by the murder that they had to endlessly talk about it, dissect its causation and machination, and seek the mastermind behind such devilish act.

The more I thought about it, the more the whole affair seemed mysterious, as if some phantom were at work. And yet even for a mystery it was too mysterious; and the lights were too bright for phantoms. I had witnessed it all with my own eyes, but I could not banish the thought that I had somehow been deceived.

We could not disabuse the narrator Takashi of his perception that he was just a fictive pawn in a fictional artifice: a morbid crime story created by the novelist Tanizaki to explore ways how detective stories, films, and novels overlap and subsume each other's forms and (malign) intents.

I heard the excruciating, heartrending groans as he flailed in desperation with the silk waistband wrapped tightly around his neck, as she squeezed the last breath out of his body. Then the cold, thin smile that lit up [her] face ... and the look of cruel scorn in the eyeballs of the man with the crewcut. I leave it to the reader to imagine how profoundly frightening these images were.

That last sentence there was the extra nail in the novel's coffin.



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