Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu (translated by Royall Tyler, Penguin Classics)

The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, in an impressive translation by Royall Tyler, is a classic of world literature. The tale from eleventh century Japan recreates (in over eleven hundred pages) a time and a region long lost, distant from memory and everyday life, and yet full of timeless and contemporary human passions and feelings. Before talking about the tale itself, we must commend the translator for imbibing prose and poetry within text with a clarity and a fluidity rare in translations. The elegant, lucid and engaging English translation provides ample footnotes to guide readers unfamiliar with names, places, idioms, customs, laws, culture and court life of the eleventh century Japan.  While reading a massive novel from another language, written in another century, we always worry about how much is left untranslated or is not communicated at all. Most translations from Indian languages into English give me a massive heartburn. Here the original is far beyond my reach, and I admire the quality of both the text and translation. Maybe I know it is best to gain what I can by reading the translation, than not read it at all. Perhaps the whole process of reading The Tale of Genji for me resembles a typical passionate communication between a suitor and a beloved described over and over again in the book. Two bodies sit separated by many blinds and customs; the conversation is carried on through calligraphed messages and through intermediaries. When one puts his or her heart into it, this conversation, however indirect, provides relief, knowledge, insight, understanding, pleasure and peace, exactly as The Tale of Genji manages to do for me, possibly for any reader.

The Tale of Genjii is a magnificent work of art, full of romances and songs, music and poetry, and yin and yang. It is a highly readable saga of princes and commoners who rise in regard and rank through their own actions and through influence of whoever holds them dear. The talks and deeds related to renunciation of the world and Buddhist penances are interspersed with a narrative where characters display a strong attachment to the world stemming from their family ties & cares and beloveds. Genji, called the Shining Prince for his exceptional beauty and charm, is a son of the emperor. His life is the centerpiece of the tale, and the narrative is primarily built around his trials and triumphs in politics, love and religion. The list of romances described in the book runs long, and on every page, appears a phrase or a verse, often a line or a couplet, mostly inspired by some famous poem seemingly known to one and all, written as part of banter between lovers, or as complaint or praise by suitors. Several different string instruments (biwa, kin, etc) and flute are held in great regard, and exceptional musical ability is admired and encourages in princes, women and nobles. Painting, dance, calligraphy, poetry and dress-making are all integral to the tale. There are no wars, no duels, there is almost no blood-shed, and there are no peasants, few commoners, no armies. The Tale of Genji has many memorable, moving and majestic sentences and passages on or about: the vagaries of weather, the charms & effects of changing seasons, festivals full of regal splendor, pilgrimages, impromptu or planned concerts and performances, monks and monasteries, births and deaths, dresses and fragrances, gifts and messages, the meanings and resonances of symbols like cherry blossoms, pine trees, acorn, bridges, rivers, mountains and wisteria leaves, admiration for Chinese tales and dresses, silks, and so on.

Some of the most striking things in The Tale of Genji for me are about the role of women in family and society. Women are secluded and hardly meet any men, they are seen only by their lovers (ideally their husbands), while the princes and the nobles grab every chance to go after anyone they get even a faint whiff or glimpse of. Often a prince appears in the bed of a woman without warning, (usually with the help from trusted associates/ helpers/ nurses of the woman) and by returning back on the next two nights, makes the chosen (fortunate or unfortunate) woman his bride. Finding good husbands for daughters is a big concern for fathers, and the progress in rank at court requires strong support of a wife's family. There are a few positions at court available only to women, and multiple wives who surround the powerful princes vie for his attention. Perhaps I note how women lived behind blinds and curtains, away from eyes of any men, including their close relatives, as it is often assumed that such practices exist or existed only in the Near-Eastern, South Asian or in the Middle-Eastern cultures. Also by reading the tale you discover how committed the Japanese men were (maybe still are) to the so-called gallantry. The men go shooting-off love poems to anyone they take a fancy to, including wives of others (including close relations), and when courtship fails, they sometimes end up taking them by force. Given how men behave, the need to seclude and protect the women seems to be justified.  A lot of action in the novel happens at night, behind closed doors, in forbidden chambers, and the author often leaves off a description by saying the details did not reach her, or the details or verses spoken were trite enough to be left out. Such remarks however never break the narrative. Another striking thing in
The Tale of Genji is the mention of spirits who take hold of other peoples bodies (minds), afflicting them, and how Buddhists priests drive such spirits out with prayer and chants, after making them to confess their whims. I grew up seeing such things in the Himalayan villages and towns, and a mention of every appellation and rites like that in the book drew my attention.

In the world literature written between eighth to fourteenth century AD, a few other exceptional books come to my mind. The Conference of Birds by Attar is a Persian classic, a sufi composition, full of fables and instruction, is very inspirational and to my eyes, it is also sensational in how sexuality is described therein. Geet-Govinda by Jayadeva in Sanskrit is probably the most important text among many that are counted in Radha-Krishan romance, Krishan-bhakti or God-as-a-beloved tradition. Decameron by Boccaccio in Italian has a string of tales, and some are quite risque, and yet many have moral connotations as well. After reading
The Tale of Genji, and thinking about all the classic medieval texts I have read, I conclude that though our ancestors were quite given to romance, there was always a stream of spiritual aspirations within them. Perhaps we have become more hypocritical and prudish than our ancestors when it comes to sexuality, and at the same time, we have become more withdrawn from religion and spirituality. The classics mentioned here, along with TThe Tale of Genji in respective cultures have influence every writer and poet who came after them, and thus these continue to influence the corpus of human thought, feeling, morality and memory.

The Tale of Genji, like War of Peace, Mahabharata, Shahnameh or Odyssey, is endless and immortal. Murasaki paints a masterpiece with a wide canvass that continues the stories through multiple generations, including hundreds of characters, developed quite remarkably within this story, portrayed with beauty and grace. The author named Genji's most beloved Murasaki. Though Genji and Murasaki attract our deepest interest and sympathies, the book is like a garden with many characters, each prone to seasonal changes in favor and form, and though all trees have their own stories of spring blossoms and autumn leaves, and  snow or rain drops or dew, the narrative binds them together quite nicely. Murasaki seemed to have written the tale with a lot of empathy for human condition. To love who must not be loved, to carry guilt of yielding to a forbidden desire, to raise another's child as your own, to love a lookalike sister or a cousin in lieu of the lost or dead beloved, to leave safety of palace and guards and go out on escapades that can destroy reputations, to steal your best friend's love interest, to become a monk and yet keep worrying about renounced relations, or to haunt your beloved after your death: there are many dark shades to the characters and their thoughts and actions in this tale. The characters often talk of cherry & plum blossoms, of fleeting life, of nature of beauty and romance, of poetry and skill, of music, and wile reading The Tale of Genji the reader begins to respond to the thoughts and words of the ancient world. Reading The Tale of Genji then becomes an experience rich in mixed emotions, of tenderness, joy, sympathy, melancholy, sorrow, nostalgia and enchantment. Wonderful and overwhelming tale, highly recommended!

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