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Confession as the Ultimate Deception :...

Junichiro Tanizaki, one of three great Japanese writers who emerged along with Kobo Abe and Yasunari Kawabata in the first half of this century, wrote what seem to be two very different kinds of fiction. Both at the beginning of his career in the 1920s and later, in the 1950s and 1960s, he produced sinuous and complex tales of sexual obsession in contemporary settings.

In his middle period, he turned to the traditions of “The Tale of Genji” and other court works of the 10th and 11th centuries. His stories begin ostensibly as classical tales of noble figures, richly embroidered with literary accounts and poetry of the time. Unmistakably, though, Tanizaki’s obsessive themes are woven in. They are erotic, at least in part, but for Tanizaki sex is the great metaphor for humanity’s immortal longings and mortal abasement. It is a personal striving that works its way, crooked as trapped ground-water, through the monumental structures and rituals of a formal and ritualized society.

An example of each style has just been published by Alfred A. Knopf. “Quicksand,” set in the 1920s, is a novel of erotic shifts, deceptions and and transformations among four people or, if you include the author--as in a way you must--five. “The Reed Cutters” and “Captain Shigemoto’s Mother” are two novellas, the latter set at the imperial court many centuries ago, the former set in more modern times but told in a classical tradition. They are translated, respectively, by Howard Hibbett and Anthony H. Chambers, who between them have put into English the main body of Tanizaki’s work. To a non- Japanese reader the translations seem both excellent and quite different. Hibbett’s is fluent and polished; Chambers’, seemingly rougher and more “foreign” sounding, evokes the distance of centuries as well as cultures.

“Quicksand” is related by Sanoko Kakiuchi, a woman who has been married to a not-very-hard-working lawyer. “Has been” because her husband, Kakiuchi, is recently dead. So is Mitsuko, a beautiful young student who was Sanoko’s lover and, at the end, Kakiuchi’s as well. The two died taking sleeping pills in what was to have been a triple suicide pact. Sanoko’s dosage, for reasons that the book’s artful geometry points in various directions, was insufficient. There is a fourth personage as well: Watanaki, a seductive, androgynous young man who was also Mitsuko’s lover, and who recedes from the scene--Kakiuchi bribes him to recede, in fact--before the denouement.

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Sanoko’s story is a shadow ballet of shifting pairs and triangles, of seductions, betrayals and inventions that leave us wonderfully unsure who is the seducer and who the seduced, who the betrayer and who the betrayed, and which if any of the many tearful confessions is true. The characters conceal from each other what they are up to--even Kakiuchi, the bewildered man of good will, joins in--while telling each other what they are up to. Tanizaki’s achievement in this beautifully and mysteriously contrived game is to make whole-hearted confession the ultimate deception.

Sanoko, bored with her idle and meticulous husband, meets Mitsuko at art school. A rumor instantly starts that they are lovers. The rumor is untrue and they defy it to become friends; before long they are lovers. Who planted the rumor? Perhaps it is the school director, bribed to ruin Mitsuko’s reputation by a family that wants to snag one of her rich suitors for their own daughter. Or did Mitsuko start the rumor to get rid of the young man? Or did she start it so that it would come true?

The book is a chain of contradictory versions that sway suspended from Tanizaki’s prestidigitating grasp. They drop into farce and lift back into mystery. Mitsuko and Watanaki get Sanoko to extricate them from a rendezvous gone bad. Their clothes have been stolen, or so they claim, and Sanoko is to bring one of her kimonos for Mitsuko and one of her husband’s for Watanaki. There is a slapstick account of the laborious logistics involved in a preliminary faked suicide--we learn a lot about Osaka bus and train service in the 1920s. Toward the end Mitsuko seems to be holding both Sonoko and her husband in comic thrall.

But it is all “seems.” Tanizaki’s dance of erotic triangles and quadrangles is really a dance about power. Who among the four characters controls reality; whose fabulation will prevail? We may dimly suspect the answer from the start. Sanoko’s narrative is told not to us but to the author. (Mitsuko is tremendously impressed to learn that Sanoko knows Tanizaki.) In this Japanese version of what in many ways resembles Jean Renoir’s masterpiece “The Rules of the Game” it is the creator of the game who wins it.

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In the novellas we move to a classical style of narration. “The Reed Cutters,” is relatively slight, with its evocations of the landscape and its citations of poets. Each beautiful view in Japan, seemingly, not only is many centuries old but has a many-centuries-old poem that describes it. The brief story concerns love bent into fanciful shape by social etiquette and ceremonial idealism.

A man falls desperately in love with a high-born woman. She loves him too but they cannot marry, so he marries her younger sister. It would be a betrayal of the older sister and of love itself to have sex, the bride insists, and so the love affair finds its poetic consummation through sororal and marital abstinence. The tone is faintly ironic, but the poetry is genuine. Tanizaki writes in and apart from tradition. His irony is simply one more brushstroke on a literary artifact 1,000 years in the making. The same is true of the longer and more substantial “Captain Shigemoto’s Mother.”

Its detailed account of court figures centuries ago can be dry. It wanders, perhaps deliberately and in the manner of an old chronicle. But the principal story that emerges is dazzling. It tells of a powerful and lecherous lord who decides to deprive his uncle, a man of lower rank, of his beautiful wife. He woos the uncle with gifts and above all with his condescension in paying a visit. Great preparations are made; hills and trees are moved to make the garden more beautiful. The honored guest is showered with attentions but at the end of the festivities he demands one last present.

It is told gorgeously; there is no other word. Tanizaki transforms the page into the ritual of the Kabuki theater in an extraordinary scene where the lord leads his uncle’s wife to his carriage in tiny stop-time movements. And he has created a breath-taking portrait of power and hierarchy. The lord, with his ruthlessness and laughter is a terrifying figure. More extraordinary is the uncle’s intoxicated eagerness to offer up his wife. The lord is next to the emperor; it is as if a god had shown himself. And afterward there is the long heartbreak. The uncle wastes away and to his little son--the future Captain Shigemoto--he recites a poem about a white crane: “Lost, she has turned to snow in my garden.”

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