Thursday, 18 February 2010

Review Post 8 - We Are Family

As mentioned in an earlier post, Jun'ichiro Tanizaki's most famous work, The Makioka Sisters, is set in the Kansai or Kinki region of Japan, the area I lived in for three years around a decade ago. Reading books set in places you know is always a particular pleasure, and this is especially true when the book is one you've wanted to read for a good while.

The story, as you would expect from the English title (the Japanese title translates as a light shower of snow...), relates a few years around the start of World War II in the lives of the Makioka sisters, four scions of a famous Osaka family. Although there are four sisters, the eldest, Tsuruko, is slightly distant from her sisters, and the book focuses on the trials and tribulations of the younger three sisters. Sachiko, married to the admirable Teinosuke, is the focal point. She spends her time attempting to arrange a marriage for the traditional (and shy) Yukiko and worrying about the headstrong, westernised baby of the family, Taeko.

The book is a work of many contrasts. The familiar East-West, Kanto-Kansai rivalries appear, with life in the new capital, Tokyo, contrasted with life in the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe conurbation. Tsuruko's symbolic distance from her sisters is emphasised by her husband's move to the capital, deserting the stuffy old Osaka family seat. There is also a contrast between the epic struggle to find a husband for the incredibly shy Yukiko and the way Katharina Kyrilenko, a Russian emigre living in Japan, sets off for England by herself and is married within months.

The differences between the Japanese way of life and that of the foreigners the Makiokas come into contact with are outlined subtly by Tanizaki, and the relationships are much less black and white than is sometimes the case. Sachiko often compares her family to the German neighbours, the Stolz family, and Taeko's acquaintances, the white Russian Kyrilenkos. While their habits may occasionally seem strange, the comparisons are not always made to the good of the Osaka natives. When it comes to Japanese who have returned from extended trips abroad, however, there is a strong sense of scepticism and prejudice...

This year, I have been influenced in my reading approach by the studies I am doing for my master's degree, Intercultural Communication in this semester, and it is fascinating to read The Makioka Sisters in this light. The picture sketched in the book of elaborate nuptial rituals and the importance of family connections in any possible relationship ties in neatly with the reading I have been doing on Collectivist cultures. I also read each spoken exchange with literal and pragmatic meaning firmly in mind: there were many very interesting exchanges from a socio-linguistic point of view!

It's a very good book, the closest thing I've read so far in Japanese literature to the long Victorian pot-boilers I love, but that's not to say that I was totally convinced. One of the blurbs on the cover claimed that Tanizaki was the greatest Japanese author of the twentieth century, but I would not go that far on the basis of this book. I found the style a little too repetitive on occasion, a string of events recounted one after the other with little variation of pace and tone. Compared to some of the Mishima, for example, that I've read over the past year or so, it all seemed a little dry at times.

Of course, as always with foreign novels in translation, it may not be the author's fault. There were a plethora of typos in my version (always annoying), and I'm not convinced that the translation was all it could have been. I'm not sure when the translation dates from, but I doubt it is that recent; one clue for this was a translator's footnote to explain a Japanese delicacy - sushi...

Those slight quibbles aside though, The Makioka Sisters is well worth reading. Get your sukiyaki ready, pour out some sake and sit down and relax with a very enjoyable novel. As for Tanizaki's greatness, however, I'll reserve judgement until I've read some more of his novels. Now, where's that Akashi-Yaki got to?