Thursday, March 19, 2009
THE MAKIOKA SISTERS BY JUNICHIRO TANIZAKI
Sometimes in literature and in life it is the little details that mean more than anything, that engrave themselves on the memory while the loud so-called turning points of life (love, falling out of love, conflict and of course death) are only acknowledged as important plot points the way one acknowledges the fan or the air conditioner on a hot night….They are key to understanding the story but are like facts from a textbook rather than the images that get under your skin or sear themselves to your consciousness.
THE MAKIOKA SISTERS by Junichiro Tanizaki is a book filled with such little details….Apart from being a classic of any genre (forget about dubbing something as “literature” only), it is one of the most meticulously constructed books I’ve ever read….When I was done reading it, I could of course immediately recall a number of the big events of the novel but I had just as easy a time recalling the smaller events-a description of a meal, the Osaka Cherry Blossom Festival, a Miai ( the Japanese function wherein a prospective bride and groom meet along with family representatives).
The four Makioka sisters are among the most fleshed-out, well described, multi-dimensional characters in all of literature especially the three who live in Ashiya; the sturdy mother surrogate Sachiko, the wild, modern Taeko, and the quiet, reserved, old-fashioned Yukiko.
The third sister, Yukiko, in particular, is important because I believe she symbolizes the death of the old Japan of tradition and formality….Her reluctance to wed and failure to find a husband for most of the book is representative of Japan on one hand advancing militarily to become an aggressive world power and on the other hand still clinging to old quaint customs like arranged marriages and the tea ceremony….Her finally giving in to marriage at the end of the book represents a Japan that can no longer put off war and attacks Pearl Harbor and the upset stomach that plagues her during her wedding and as she leaves for the honeymoon (providing one of the best closing lines I’ve ever read in a book) represents the dark future ahead….One could also discuss the character of the man she married of whom there was a question of whether or not he could maintain a steady income….This was after a number of failed Miai’s earlier in the book with men who were better financial prospects as husbands.
Taeko, the youngest sister, who has several lovers throughout THE MAKIOKA SISTERS, ignores orders from older siblings and people higher in the family structure, has a career (as opposed to most other female characters of the same class in the book who are either housewives or waiting to become housewives), and ends up pregnant out of wedlock, is the unknown future….This is where Japan becomes adrift from its old traditions and culture and patriarchal family structure and becomes a society without values.
But despite all this, this is not a book that is particularly heavy with symbolism….It’s there but addressed in such a precise, delicate manner that the writing never becomes overbearing…. The narrative is also written in such a way so as to get around the usual predictable structure with big telegraphed plot points, conflict, denouement, and resolution….Here everything moves with such reality that when events happen it feels like reality not someone’s attempt to tell a story.
Honestly, one of the greatest books I’ve ever read….If I could pick my own texts for the literature class I teach, THE MAKIOKA SISTERS would be near the top of the list.