Monday, October 6, 2008

Junichiro Tanizaki/THE MAKIOKA SISTERS

In the late 1930s, Sachiko Makioka, the second daughter in the once-great Makioka family, is just about driven batty trying to solve her family's complicated problems. Yukiko, the older of her two younger sisters, is dangerously close to becoming an old maid, having reached 30 with nothing but failed marriage negotiations, but her older sister, Tsuruko, has the final say in who Yukiko can marry, is totally out of touch with the realities of modern society and seems to thwart Sachiko and her kindly husband's good efforts at every turn. Her youngest sister, Taeko, impatient to carry out her own marriage, which she has been waiting for for a decade, seems to be on the verge of resorting to behavior that could ruin the whole family. As Osaka is afflicted by flood and impending war, Sachiko battles her stubborn, old-fashioned family, all of whom she loves dearly, and tries to get them to do what's best for themselves.

The Makioka Sisters is Tanizaki's classic, probably his most famous book in translation, at least, and I had wanted to set aside the time to read it for awhile now. It's a big project--it's a long book, and the read feels as rich and decadent as the family it describes. There is a lot of clever humor, but it's hidden in Tanizaki's very subtle relation of tiny--even "mundane"--details, and an impatient reader will miss most of what makes this book worthwhile. I would recommend taking it up when you have time to savor. It's certainly a rewarding read, however, especially if you have any interest in Japanese culture. Fans of Memoirs of a Geisha will recognize a lot of threads and themes, since The Makioka Sisters is the original treatment of upper-class women in the years before World War II, and Arthur Golden was probably inspired by this book, which was composed between 1943 and 1947.

For me, one of the most wonderful aspects of the book is how focused on real-life problems it is. There is no high drama or unrealistic plot twist. Some proof: without ruining the book at all, you might flip to the last page and read the last sentence, which recounts the unfortunate fact that one character gets on a train to visit Tokyo and unfortunately has diarrhea the whole journey. I love that Tanikai chooses to end on this note, this utterly mundane but realistic problem, and that the overall feeling is "life goes on"--you've simply been allowed to see a couple of years in the lives of these very real characters.

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