Monday, February 13, 2012

Quicksand, by Junichiro Tanizaki

Several years ago, my younger son, who is working on a doctorate in Japanese literature, made me a list (at my request) of Japanese works that I should read. I read several titles and then, for quite some time, ignored the list. He even added some books a couple of years ago, and I still managed not to read any of them. Recently, however, I decided to restart my education in Japanese literature and chose to start with Quicksand, by Junichiro Tanizaki.

Quicksand is narrated by Sonoko Kakiuchi, a young housewife living near Osaka in the late 1920s. Her lawyer husband bores her and a recent love affair has ended, so she starts taking classes at an art school. There, she meets the beautiful Mitsuko, with whom she is soon involved in an intense love affair. Over time, she learns that Mitsuko also has a male lover, Watanuki, and this discovery leads to increasingly strange complications. Mrs. Kakiuchi is clearly being manipulated--but by whom and for what purpose is less clear. Then her husband is drawn into the love ... square? rectangle? manji (a four-spoked Buddhist symbol and evidently the title of the book in Japanese)? From there, this story of obsessive love, deception, manipulation, and love suicide becomes even more surreal.

Mrs. Kakiuchi is telling her story to an unnamed "author" after a scandal has erupted and at least some of the other central characters are dead. Exactly why she is telling her story to this person is unclear to me--but it's hardly the only facet of the novel that I don't entirely understand. "The author" to whom Mrs. Kakiuchi is telling her story occasionally inserts explanatory notes--usually snide asides about the lack of taste among Osaka women. Because these notes are fairly frequent early in the book, I found it odd when they disappeared after the first few chapters. The book was originally serialized in 1928-1930, and I can see how the plot twists--and the somewhat lurid content for that time--would keep people reading. As a novel, however, I found Quicksand exasperating. Perhaps I am just not interested enough in obsessive love--but I see five more Tanizaki novels on that list, so I'll have more options to explore what is evidently one of this author's recurring themes!

Of interest:
According to Ian Buruma, writing in The New York Times (, the book's "unique tone," which was written in upper-class Osaka dialect as it would be spoken by a woman, simply cannot be conveyed in English.

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