The Tale of Genji
”The Tale of Genji” is a thousand year old Japanese story, which apparently is still today used as leisure reading in Japan. Having read it I understand why. This is juicy stuff and thematically relevant even today.
At 180 pages my copy turned out to be an extract of the much larger novel, but I think it covered enough ground to give me the bigger picture and as it was starting to get repetitive I am okay to make the cut where my edition ended. This version covered the period from Genji’s birth to his wedding with Murasaki.
“The Tale of Genji” is essentially a Cassanova story. Genji is a prince at the imperial Japanese court who seems to spend most of his time courting women. With dashing good looks, youth and the status and wealth of being a prince he has plenty of women pinning for him. Yet Genji insists on seeking out the most impossible courtships. The stranger and more difficult the better and he really gets around.
I lost count on the number of women he is courting at any one time. It is indeed the most challenging element to the story because like Genji the narrative also juggles multiple women at any one time and I am far from certain that I have been able to separate each of them out from the others. Genji has a thing going with the emperor’s (his father) fiancé Fujitsubo, which results in a child. He has another thing going with Princess Rokujo, widow to the emperor’s brother all the while he is married to Princess Aoi, the daughter of a minister. But that is only background to his external chase of women, which is the bulk of the story and these women cover the entire range. From an elderly maid to a secluded and stunted princess. Mysterious women in the dark and chance encounters.
Genji is very eloquent and with his wit and charm he gets far, but curiously most interaction with all these women, at least what we are witness to, is through exchange of poetry. I am sure this is a cultural artifact and likely also something added to the story to give it a romantic spin, but for a modern, western reader it is almost comical how dialogue is performed through exchange of poetry. It also gives a very romantic hue to Genji’s character making him seem gentle and desirable.
Yet it is difficult not to see Genji as a tragic and probably even pathological womanizer. Most of his affairs end in disaster, particularly for the women. As far as I can tell every single one of them suffers from his attention. One dies, attacked by a vengeful spirit for her “transgression”, Fujitsubo is petrified for fear the emperor should find out Genji is the father of her child. The weird Suyetsumuhana is driven almost insane by his attention and Aoi his wife finally dies, apparently from frustration with Genji.
There is definitely a warning in this that this sort of promiscuity leads to disaster but I do not feel that this sentiment is carried through. The story seems to be quite impressed with Genji, that he is an awesome dude for all his adventures and it insists on showing him in a good light.
I am not as impressed with Genji as a person. One thing is that he is courting a lot of women, but he has a real problem letting go. Instead of cutting clean to finish his relationships he insists on continuing them long after he has moved on to someone else. Thus he ends up having up to six or seven relationships going at the same time. We are supposed to think that he acts out of kindness to the women, but in actuality it is cruel beyond measure as the women are left with the hope that he might come back to them. We are also supposed to think that he seeks other women because his wife is cool to him, but we are not only talking one other affair. If Aoi has even an inkling of what he has going on she should be royally pissed off.
I can follow the story’s sympathy or at least its awe of Genji some of the way. His activities are impressive by any standards, but I finally lose it for him when Murasaki becomes involved. He meets Murasaki (the apparent author of the novel) while she is a child and takes her under his wings. There is definitely a Lolita thing going on from his point of view, but she sees him as a step-father and gives him the trust of a such. This trust is in the last chapter violated when he marries her and as is hinted at is having sex with her. Murasaki is at this point hardly more than a child, certainly mentally, and there is no other way to look at it than as a pedophilic violation. The act leaves Murasaki as destroyed as all the other women and no wonder. The only thing at Genji’s defense is that as a privileged child he was spoilt and could get away with anything. No boundaries means no limits and maybe he did not know better. Still, it is a lame defense.
The best thing about “The Tale of Genji” is the portrait of medieval Japan, especially the focus on something else than samurai and war. There is a treasure throve of cultural information here and the remarkable thing is that it is actually not that far removed from our world. I like Japan and Japanese culture and this was a gold mine.
The worst thing is that this feels like a whitewash of a pedophilic womanizer. Tiresome at length and horrible at the end.