Last year, Kyoto celebrated the 1,000th anniversary of this epic tale, generally considered to be the world's first true novel. Consisting of 54 chapters, it describes courtly life in the Heian era of Japan, which extended from 794 to 1191, when Kyoto was the nation’s capital. An extended period of peace and prosperity meant that art and literature flourished, and a Japanese culture, distinct from that of China, began to emerge, a culture based on poetry and music rather than the arts of war.
The author is a woman, Murasaki Shikibu, who lived in Kyoto from approximately 978 to 1014. Her real name is unknown. Her first name, Murasaki, is the name of Genji’s most beloved wife, while Shikibu comes from an office held by her father. After her husband's death, she became a courtier to the empress Joto Mon'in. According to tradition, Murasaki dreamt up The Tale of Genji during a single night at the Ishiyama-dera Temple in August of 1004 while she contemplated the moon (which curiously reminded me of J.K. Rowling’s famous train ride in which she conceived of the entire Harry Potter sequence). Evidence indicates the tale was composed sometime between 1001 and 1010.
The story covers three generations of aristocratic and royal families, but concentrates primarily on one man, Prince Genji, the son of the emperor and a lesser consort. Genji is a hero of love rather than battle, a man who appreciates women of all types and stations. These women are not just conquests to him, notches on a sword, but individuals. He is attentive to their lives and wants and needs, and it is this sensitivity, along with his surpassing beauty, that makes him so successful a lover.
I had to keep reminding myself to suspend judgment. This tale is set in a different culture, far distant in time and place, with different mores and different expectations. I found it hard not to be shocked by the casual assumption that all women are there for an aristocrat’s taking, whether they like it or not, and that a man forcing himself on a woman may be considered romantic and the prelude to a love match. Genji is regarded as remarkable for taking responsibility for the women he has used in this way, housing them in a wing of one of his palaces or providing for their upkeep. A different time. A different culture.
Once I could let go of outrage, I fell victim to the poetry:
“‘_Ageless_ shall be the name of our pleasure boats.’
‘Our boats row out into the bright spring sun,
And water drops from the oars like scattering petals.'”
It is not just the small poems Genji exchanges with friends and lovers, but the narrative and description. “Even the most ordinary music can seem remarkable if the time and place are right; and here on the wide seacoast, open far into the distance, the groves seemed to come alive in colors richer than the bloom of spring or the change of autumn, and the calls of the water rails were as if they were pounding on the door and demanding to be admitted . . . ‘A bridge that floats across dreams?’ he whispered, reaching for a koto . . . Diffidently she took up the lute which he pushed towards her, and they played a brief duet.”
And it is not all about love and music. The author writes sensitively of nature: “There was a heavy fall of snow . . . The contrast between the snow on the bamboo and the snow on the pines was very beautiful . . . (Genji says,) ‘People make a great deal of the flowers of spring and the leaves of autumn, but for me a night like this, with a clear moon shining on snow, is the best — and there is not a trace of color in it. I cannot describe the effect it has on me, weird and unearthly somehow.'”
Here is Genji after his father’s death:
“Coming to the grave, Genji almost thought he could see his father before him. Power and position were nothing once a man was gone. He wept and silently told his story, but there came no answer, no judgment upon it. And all those careful instructions and admonitions had served no purpose at all?
‘Quickly the blossoms fall. Though spring departs,
You will come again, I know, to a city of flowers.'”
And of Genji’s own death Murasaki says:
“He went away like the foam upon the waters.”