Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Fine teacups, a rice pounder, some salted Mermaids - Ihara Saikaku's Five Women Who Loved Love

The Anthology of Japanese Literature inspired me to take up Ihara Saikaku's Five Women Who Loved Love (1686), a collection of five tales of young women caught up in all-consuming love affairs that end, mostly, in suicide, execution, or a nunnery. They are all based on more or less contemporary events, and several of them are also the subject of puppet plays by Chikamitsu.

Five Women Who Loved Love is interesting enough for its own sake, but I inevitably found myself comparing it to more familiar Western literary traditions. Sometimes it felt quite modern, especially in the odd, indirect structuring of some of the stories. The frankness about sexual and digestive matters sometimes seemed modern and sometimes harked back to Petronius or Boccaccio or some of Saikaku's Western contemporaries like Swift. In Victorian terms, this is a dirty book, but it's hardly smuttier than William Wycherley's The Country Wife.

Actually, the open treatment of homosexuality was genuinely surprising to me. The final tale is about a girl who falls in love with, seduces (disguised as a boy), and marries a hedonistic homosexual monk. It's as much his story than hers. It ends with the ex-monk inspecting his new wife's wealth, "so happy that he wept," thinking of all the sexual pleasure (actors and prostitutes) he can buy with it. The first four stories end tragically in one way or another, but this is where Saikaku actually leaves us, ironically complicating any lessons a reader might have wanted to draw.

I don't quite trust the translator, Wm. Theodore de Bary. First, what's with that abbreviation? Second, he brags in the introduction that he owns an original edition of the book, which is admittedly pretty cool, since it was first published as five separate little books, with woodcuts, but still, kinda rude. Third, look at the display of wealth that the monk is admiring:

"There were one thousand two hundred and thirty-five flawless coral beads, weighing from one and a half to one hundred and thirty momme each; sharkskin for sword handles; celadon procelain in unlimited quantities; fine teacups from the Asuka River region, piled about carelessly because it made no difference how many got broken; some salted Mermaids; a small bucket made of agate; a rice pounder from the Taoist paradise of Han-tan in China", etc., etc., wait a minute!

The translator's footnote informed me that a salted Mermaid is "A kind of salamander," which I was willing to accept until I turned the page and found this, one of the original illustrations:

A kind of salamander? I don't think so, pal.

Maybe this is a good place to point the curious to the Bookphile's recent post on this book, which takes a rather different point of view.

No comments:

Post a Comment