Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi and Arrowroot by Tanizaki

It is said, for example, that part of the Hori mansion in Anafu, where Emperor Godaigo once stayed, is still standing, occupied even now by descendants of the family. Also thriving are the progeny of Takehara Hachirō, who appears in "The Prince of the Great Pagoda Flees to Kumano" in the "Taiheiki." The prince stayed with this family for a time and had a son by their daughter. An even older tradition survives in the hamlet of Gokitsugu, on Mount Ōdaigahara. Asserting that the people of Gokitsugu are descended from ogres, residents of the surrounding villages never marry them... This being the nature of the region, there are a number of old families, called "people of descent" who claim to be descended form the local warriors who served the Southern Court. Even now they honor "The Lord of the Southern Court" every year... at the Kongō temple near Kashiwagi, the site of the Shōgun-prince's palance in Kono Valley.

First things first: I want to assure you, the reader, that I won't resort to Chris' antics of inflating my numbers with reviews of Garfield comic strip compilations. You deserve more than that. So, as the Ken Griffey Jr. to Christopher's Barry Bonds, I post the reviews of these two novellas together as one, in the way they were presented to me.

Now onto the stories. And wow... What crap they turned out to be. I was just thinking after finishing A House of Sand and Fog that I hadn't read a book this month that I haven't liked on one level or another. Along comes The Secret History... and Arrowroot. Let me start off with The Secret History... the first novella in the collection and the only one that had any semblance of pacing and story structure.

The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi is, essentially, exactly what it claims to be. Imagine a book about General George S. Patton. This book has nothing to do with Patton's brilliance on the battlefield. In fact, it often starts to describe his wartime heroics, but stops short, citing the multitude of literature available on the subject and deeming it unnecessary to rehash that which is already well known. Instead, the book in question is about Patton's dark, masochistic sex life based almost entirely on conjecture. Patton wore fur coats right? He probably liked putting cigars out on his balls. That's basically how I can best describe The Secret History. The story's sexuality is distinctly Japanese, dealing with erotic fixation on severed heads, romantic rendezvous in a latrine teeming with dung, and torture of underlings as foreplay. I got a few laughs from the overall absurdity of it all, but really the story itself was a bore. There is no consistency amongst the characters, there's no real conflict to live and die with, and you walk away from the whole thing scratching your head wondering what the hell did I just read about?

Highlights: It was only 140 pages, the part where the sadomasochistic warlord spends an afternoon chasing fireflies.
Lowlights: It sucked.

Now onto Arrowroot, and forgive me if I don't give this much attention. 4 pages into Arrowroot and I knew that finishing it was going to be an exercise in asceticism. I chose the passage above to illustrate just how cumbersome this story was. Hell, I use the word "story" here loosely. It's more or less an author's description of his efforts to tell a story. And the writing is very similar to other classical Japanese works I've read. It's all about how The Warrior of The Red Lotus used his Katana of Impending Nightfall to disembowel The Warlord of Three Blossom Petals on the Hill of Gokikongotsuguharasanachiro to win the hand of The Princess of Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon in the Year of Surprisingly Light Rainfall. No story actually gets told. It's just anecdote after lineage after landscape description. Maybe it's a cultural thing. Maybe if I was Japanese and I was raised with this type of storytelling I wouldn't find it so plodding and galumphing. Maybe I'm just a simpleton and Edmund White of The New York Times is right to call Tanizaki "the outstanding Japanese novelist of the century." Or maybe he's just pretentious as you'd expect a book reviewer named Edmund to be and it's really as bad as it seems to be. Maybe there's a reason the first edition hardcover of these two stories is going for $1.39 on Amazon marketplace. I don't know. I'm not a professional.

Highlights: It's only 57 pages. Also I got to use the word galumphing.
Lowlights: It was like 53 pages too long.

Do yourself a favor and don't read either of these stories. You can get a better taste of Japanese storytelling by playing Final Fantasy 7.


Nihil Novum said...

How does this compare to that one book?

Amanda said...

This is the funniest review I've read in a long time.

Jim said...

To which 'one book' do you refer, mon frere?

Nihil Novum said...

It's really long and Chinese.

Nihil Novum said...

Actually, the book I was thinking of was The Tale of the Genji. That looks interesting, it's just so huge.

Christopher said...

That paragraph made my eyes glaze over.

Also, wouldn't you guess that Patton liked to put his cigars out on someone else's balls?