I have never found coming home easy. Something about change makes the adjustment period hard and a part of me would prefer to just keep moving on instead of stopping. So, I was happy to arrive in Montreal without having managed to finish reading one of the two books I had brought with me. And little wonder I hadn’t finished; it is Murasaki Shikibu’s one-thousand-page-plus novel, The Tale of Genji. I saw the book as a bridge – a bridge connecting me to where I had just come from: another time and another world – a culture and people I had somehow managed to connect with and a connection that I want to continue to explore and nourish.
I am a slow methodical reader, often only managing a few pages each night before falling asleep. I finished the book a few days ago, almost two months after my return. A Floating Bridge of Dreams is the title of the last chapter of the book. I kept reading, curious to know how she could possibly end this soap-opera like, run-on story of a royal, family legacy written in the 11th century. With the main character, the shining Genji dead somewhere even before the middle of the book, the tale continues with his sons and grandson and most importantly with the women around them. There is no conclusion, no climax; the story stops as abruptly as it began. A Floating Bridge of Dreams ends the book as it suggests: in mid-air, leading me back into myself and my own tangled thoughts and life.
Several things surprised me about this book. Both the Pillow Book, (the other book I took with me as reference material to Tokyo) and The Tale of Genji come from the same era and both were written by women of the upper class. Both also reveal how much poetry was an important, everyday way of communicating. Chinese poems were widely read and often quoted or referenced or developed in the poems sent in everyday letters. Lovers were expected to communicate immediately after a night together and the man began the communication. I discovered that women lived very sheltered and physically separated lives- at least in court life, I don’t know how the rest of society functioned. Men seldom were allowed to actually see women, even sisters remained physical mysteries. Night-long conversations are often mentioned, but the woman remains either physically distant, sending letters or messages through her maid from inside the house to the outside, or on the other side of a curtain, or with her face turned away, or behind a fan. Crying is often described, as being endless. Many poems suggest sleeves wet with tears and there are long passages describing the tears of both men and women. For example, Niou is preparing to leave Ukifune after kidnapping her for a weekend tryst and he begins their goodbyes with this, ‘My soul, he whispered, does it linger on your sleeve?’ and then,
Niou: What shall I do? These tears run on ahead and plunge the road I must go into utter darkness.
Ukifune: So narrow my sleeves, they cannot take my tears. How then shall I make bold to keep you with me? (Narrow sleeves indicate a low rank, page 1067 of the Edward G. Seidensticker translation)
It is quite amazing to think that this book survived. It was most likely written in kana, the phonetic script invented and used by women, given that kanji, the official Chinese script was reserved primarily for men. Women in imperial court life appear to have had few options. They must marry and marry as well as their fathers are able to find a husband for them; they can divorce or be divorced, but remain financially dependent on someone. They can become one of several wives, or a concubine. Older, they can retire from social life and pursue a spiritual life as a nun. Suicide and the nunnery seem to be the only options for independent thinking women. Given the limitations for women, how did Murasaki Shikibu manage to establish and develop her writing? Little changed for women until the Meiji period (1868-1912) when Japan ended a long history of isolation and began trading with the rest of the world. Women’s role in society changed even more drastically after the Second World War and continues to evolve with the rest of the world, although somewhat slower than Western countries.
Although, the writing is often repetitive, choppy stylistically and confusing (sometimes I had no idea who was speaking or being referred to) and more than once in the 3-4 months it has taken me to slowly finish it, I came close to pitching it at the wall, it is also rich with descriptions of the many characters’ inner lives as well as descriptions of nature and the seasons. More importantly and this is what kept me going, the book offers fascinating insight into contemporary Japanese society. As an outsider or ‘gai-gin’ (Japanese name for foreigners) there is much in interpersonal rituals, communications and actions that remain mysterious, like the underside of glaciers, one senses there is more than meets the eye. Often, in my interactions with people, I was never quite sure if I was doing the right thing, or if I was understanding correctly. There never seemed to be clear yeses or nos and in fact, in Japanese, there is no distinct word for no. My calligraphy instructor once casually tossed over her shoulder, uh… Japanese don’t do NO. I thought maybe it was just a gai-jin thing and that only foreigners don’t understand, but after reading The Tale of Genji, I sense that the layered, indirect and very circuitous channels of communication are cultural. Much is to be read between the words, between the lines; the silences speak. No is silent.
Inner lives remain private; as readers, we witness the extreme care all the characters take to keep this secret. During my time there, I was constantly made aware of two things : shyness and the lack of physical contact. I learned to warn people that I would be saying goodbye “Montreal-style” and proceed to grab them and plant two kisses one on each cheek. I would often sense a momentary awkwardness and then a laugh; no one ever complained nor ran away.