Written by Grace Ibrahim
The Tale of Genji is widely regarded as the fist novel ever written. It is well over thousand pages and has fifty four chapters. However I am only covering the abridged version in this review, which I suggest you read before deciding whether or not you want to take on this work in is entirety. This version was translated and edited by Royall Tyler who recently retired from teaching Japanese and Japanese Literature at the Australian National University.
The Tale of Genji however was written in Japan by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady of the Heian court. She was born around 973 AD and died probably in 1014. Murasaki was already known for her talent in poetry writing when she was called to serve the empress in 1006. The Tale of Genji was completed sometime between 1007-1008 while she was still serving at court.
The Tale of Genji tells the story of a prince born to an Intimate of the emperor. The hierarchy works like so, the emperor and his empress, after the empress was the Mistress of staff in theory she was a court official but she was really more like a junior wife. Then following those two are the consorts who are of noble birth, then after them came the intimates who are of low ranking noble birth or of common birth. The emperor did not have all these women due to enormous sexual appetite but more so because he was expected to make himself available to members of the upper aristocracy.
Genji our hero was born to an intimate who is an orphan an so has no family backing or political support. The emperor however is deeply devoted to her and longs to make Genji his heir apparent. However since he knows this is not possible he instead decides to remove Genji completely from the imperial family by giving him a surname (the imperial family has none) and appointing him as a senior government official.
Genji’s life is full of ups and downs and he eventually becomes the most powerful man in the kingdom however the story is less about this and more about the women he is involved with, who help shape him. From his mother in early childhood to the love of his life whom he raises as a daughter than later marries. Genji’s life though privileged is not without trial and error as a youth he makes many mistakes in love some of which are quite hilarious! He is described as “devastatingly handsome, charming and eloquent”. He also seems to posses unlimited material means eventually even that cannot protect him from the Kokiden consort she is the mother of the heir apparent and is Genji’s political enemy. She succeeds in forcing him in to self-exile when he is caught in bed with her little sister Oborozukiyo by her father! Genji then travels from Kyoto to Suma and since he is in disgrace he must leave his wife Murasaki whom he loves most in the world behind. After he is in the wilds languishing in misery over being separated from Murasaki he is almost killed in a great storm and starts to have strange dreams of supernatural beings and of his late father. However soon after the storms subside a eccentric and very wealthy man called the Akashi Novice arrives by boat to ask Genji to accompany him further up the shore to a his home. Genji goes with him and here we meet the Akashi Lady who is the daughter of the Akashi novice. When Genji is finally called back to the capitol from exile she is pregnant with his child. This child a girl will eventually become empress after the reign of Genji’s secret first born Reizei.
By the end of the book Genji has three children all by different mothers and all of whom go on to greatness. His first son whom he has with his stepmother empress Fujitsubo goes on to become emperor and his second son by his first wife Aoi goes on to be a court official. His daughter by the Akashi Lady goes on to become empress. During his daughter’s reign he receives the title of Grandfather of the emperor the highest title given to a commoner.
After Genji’s triumphant return from exile he is mainly concerned with power and beauty and though still tempted by several women he does not actually start any new relationships. His power and wealth grow to new heights but he is most concerned over Murasaki who is taken very ill and eventually dies leaving Genji now in his 50’s a shell of his former self. After Murasaki’s passing Genji retires to a temple and then dies roughly a year or two later. The last thirteen chapters pick up after a gap of about eight years after Genji’s passing and concern Genji’s grandson Prince Niou and his best friend and rival in love Kaoru these chapters cover there struggle to win the sister’s Oigimi and Naka no Kimi but this like much of the rest of the book also ends in tragedy.
Overall The tale of Genji is a great read and ranks in Japanese Literature on the level of Shakespeare, Homeric epics, Chaucer, and Proust’s Remembrance of things past, in the west.
Another version of the cover illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano.
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