21 March 2010

Some Prefer Nettles (Junichirō Tanizaki)

There will be a shadow of discontent hovering over this review, I must warn you now. However, for the neat purposes of a chronological format I shall only be addressing the source of my discontent towards the end of the review. If you read Earhart and I mainly for our negativity rather than the disgustingly obsequious prose we regularly dedicate to those authors who are lucky enough to have nestled into our hearts, I would recommend skipping ahead a few paragraphs.

I am on a bit of a Japanese kick at the moment. A friend recently expressed interest in reading more about Japan, having discovered that I lived there for a short period. Being of a reasonably youthful age at the time (I probably couldn't say my r's properly at that point) I don't feel all that guilty about the fact I didn't spend my time reading everything I could lay my hands on from the Japanese Canon. Of course, now that I can, in fact, skip my way through Ring a Round a Rosy with only limited amounts of angst (any child's game referencing the Bubonic Plague will always leave me feeling slightly uneasy) I feel I am ready to take on Junichirō Tanizaki, considered by many to be Japan's greatest novelist of the 20th century.

Some Prefer Nettles was written in 1929, at a time in Tanizaki's life when he was experiencing deep disillusionment with the Western customs he had so eagerly embraced in his earlier career. The novel tells the story of a Tokyo gentleman (Kaname) who has long fallen out of love with his wife Misako. He feels no desire for her whatsoever and we are subjected to these rather depressing scenes where he lies awake at night listening to his wife sob herself to sleep. She has taken a lover and the two plan to divorce, but both are so unbelievably retarded by indecision and cowardice that neither will actually take the first step and initiate the proceedings.

The third player in this low-level melodrama is Misako's father, a traditionalist who holds great faith in the calming and restorative powers of returning to one's Japanese cultural roots. He himself has taken a very young lover (O-hisa) and spends his time lecturing her on how to play the samisen to greater effect, how to pour tea, how to massage his shoulders, how to BATHE PROPERLY (soap is a big no-no, for best results use a bran bag) etcetera. To her eternal credit, O-hisa does not end up murdering him in his sleep. I would have suffocated him with the bran bag.

What follows is not exactly what I was lead to expect, having read the blurb. Of course, one must be very careful when going by the blurb on a Japanese novel, especially one that has been translated by someone who is not the original author. Japanese novels are inherently very different to any Western novels I have read. Plot is a consequence of the natural momentum generated by well-written characters and trains of thought, rather than the driving motive of the author. Like writing a detailed blurb about a book of haiku, it is extremely hard to pinpoint exactly what this novel is about. Yes, a breakdown of a marriage. But also the beauty of a puppet theatre. The purity of white food set against polished lacquer. The poetry of cherry blossoms. The bitter poignancy of a child's premature wisdom.

Try getting any of those past a marketing department.

However, as beautiful and lilting as the prose was, I have not fallen in love with this novel. At 4 in the afternoon today I was at a swimming carnival, pretending to watch whilst actually finishing my novel. I arrived at the denouement and could not believe what I was seeing. The novel finishes mid-thought. Mid-paragraph. Admittedly, at least, it does not finish mid-sentence. I was enraged. So abrupt is the ending, not once did I think that it was actually meant to be like that. I decided I had purchased a faulty copy, missing at least two or three more pages. I came home and started trolling the internet.

I was wrong. The novel ends where it's supposed to end.

Now, there are ambiguous endings. There are sudden endings. But this is a whole different kettle of fish. Having no idea what I am supposed to take from the ending I have flicked through the book again, searching for clues. I have plotted out different ways it could have ended. I have reached a few conclusions, none of which can be substantiated because I have nothing in print to back me up! (And Tanizaki is long dead, so I can't plague him for answers. Typical).

Of course, this is perhaps how one is supposed to react upon reaching the conclusion of Some Prefer Nettles. It is possible that the novel sets the reader up for exactly this reason- to make them have a relatively subdued tantrum poolside and then to make up their own minds. A novel directly in opposition to the spoon-feeding genre.

I'm still nursing some residual anger over it, but I think I understand what Tanizaki was doing. Kazuo Ishiguro says that writing novels should be like writing songs, with no need to justify why something is written the way that it is. This is, of course, only a valid argument if the piece you are talking about is written well; if it is incredibly confusing and rubbish to boot then you can safely begrudge the author the hours you wasted on them. With Tanizaki, whether or not you feel the abrupt ending is justified, I can vouch for the fact that everything you read up until then is worth your time and effort.

I may actually post a link here to Ishiguro's interview during The Sydney Writer's Festival 2009- you can watch just highlights or the entire hour if you wish. (Or, if you're feeling rebellious, nothing at all). I found it extremely interesting and, as an aspiring writer, rather valuable in terms of insight. Ishiguro has often listed Tanizaki as one of his strongest Japanese influences, so this part of the review is not entirely out of left wing.

I have just realised this review is almost as long as the book itself. Clearly I am not Japanese and have much to learn in the art of minimalist prose.

Rating: 8/10.
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