‘Some Prefer Nettles’ by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki (Review)

Jun’ichiro Tanizaki is definitely a writer worthy of my J-Lit Giants series, one of the best-known Japanese authors of the twentieth century.  His most famous novel is possibly The Makioka Sisters, but today’s offering, Some Prefer Nettles, would be up there among his best.  As well as being an excellent read, today’s choice has one more point (for me) in its favour – once again, we’re heading back to the region where I spent my time in Japan…

*****
Some Prefer Nettles (translated by Edward Seidensticker) is set in the Kansai region of Japan, the gritty polar opposite of the cultured Kanto area around Tokyo.  The story is constructed around Kaname and Misako, a married couple who, for a number of years, have been husband and wife in little more than name.  As the unhappy couple attempt to pluck up the courage to sever their ties for good, Kaname starts to regret the effect the divorce will have on his relationship with his father-in-law, Hideo.

Hideo has completely surrendered to the alien Kansai culture and is enjoying his old age in Kyoto, along with a young lover who has taken the place of his dead wife.  O-hisa, a doll-like classical Kyoto beauty, is very different from the Tokyo-bred Misako, but Kaname starts to wonder whether that is really such a bad thing after all.  Like his father-in-law, Kaname begins to see that new is not necessarily better…

Some Prefer Nettles is a short, semi-autobiographical novel with two main focuses.  The first is the problem of working through, or ending, an unhappy marriage.  Kaname lost interest in sex with Misako soon after the start of the marriage, and his inability to feel anything for her has caused her heartbreak – and driven her to take a lover (with Kaname’s blessing…).  Yet the hapless husband is still undecided about forcing the issue of a divorce as he’s not convinced that love and sex are vital to a happy marriage:

“Who, looking at them now, could know that they were not really husband and wife?  Not even the servants, who saw them every day, seemed yet to have suspected it.  And indeed weren’t they husband and wife?  He thought of how she helped him even with his underwear and socks.  Marriage was after all not only a matter of the bedroom.  He had known women enough in his life who ministered to that particular need.  But surely the reality of marriage lay as much in these other small ministrations.  Indeed, he could almost feel that through them marriage was revealing itself in its most basic, its most classical form, and he could think of Misako as an entirely satisfactory wife…”
pp.12-13 (Vintage, 2001)

Anyone who thinks that Kaname is a satisfactory husband though is very wide of the mark.  While he may appear generous and cultured, especially in comparison with his rough-and-ready father-in-law, he is actually an extremely cruel man.  The more the reader learns about his ‘marriage’, and the more we reflect upon his treatment of Misako, the more loathsome he becomes.  Having lost all sexual desire for his wife, he simply goes on sleeping in the same room as her, listening to her tears night after night for years, virtually forcing her to seek affection in the arms of another man (while he runs off after Eurasian prostitutes…).

If he could only take some initiative and instigate a divorce, he might salvage some dignity.  However, he is unable to actually bring himself to make a decision which may disrupt his comfortable life, shying away from the thought of a scene:

He was guided by a Tokyo-bred sense of how to comport himself, and with his dislike for the unrestrained Osaka drama, he could only with revulsion see himself as the contorted, weeping principal in a scene from an Osaka melodrama.” p.45

As the novel ends, we are no closer to a resolution – which is very in character…

As mentioned above, Tanizaki used this novel to work through some issues in his own life.  He too divorced his wife, virtually passing her on to a close friend.  While this may seem a little off to non-Japanese, he did at least ensure that his wife would be provided for in future, with a new husband he knew and trusted…

The second issue is his own experience with the Kanto – Kansai (Osaka/Kyoto/Kobe) divide.  While some of his characters believe the Tokyo way of life to be more refined and elegant than the mercantile Osaka lifestyle, Kaname gradually comes to see the honesty in the traditional Kansai customs, something which has been lost in the east.  Like Misako, Tokyo is described as having been coated with a layer of refinement and civilisation – albeit, one which only runs so deep…

Some Prefer Nettles is an excellent read, a slow-moving, psychologically-intense work (although if pages of descriptions of puppet shows are not your thing, you may disagree).  In Kaname, Tanizaki has created a ‘superfluous hero’ worthy of being the successor to Futabatei’s Bunzo Utsumi (although he’s a little nastier than the hero of Ukigumo).  There is no real ending, and the loose ends remain anything but tied up – but that’s the point.  Tanizaki himself said that if you’ve understood the characters, you’ll know how the story ends.  Read it for yourself, and see if you agree 🙂

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