Junichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters (1943)
I’m not very well-versed in world literature, and when I do read works in translation they tend to be from Europe. But I really want to do something about that, and as I looked for great novels from other continents to broaden my horizons, The Makioka Sisters kept coming up. As I started reading, it struck me as a strange mixture of familiar and foreign; the family of sisters, the marriage-centered plot, the importance placed on family and social class, all invited comparison to the novels of Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope. But though the story is set in the 1930s, not the 1800s, these Japanese sisters are even more heavily bound by centuries of tradition than Austen’s heroines, who at least are allowed to marry for love.
The central dilemma is simply stated: of the four sisters, the older two are married, the youngest is champing at the bit, but the third sister has been unable to find a husband, and custom dictates that she must marry before her younger sister does. The proud but no longer prosperous Makiokas started out by rejecting candidates as unsuitable, but as Takiko ages she undergoes the humiliation of being the one rejected, and her next-oldest and closest sister, Sachiko, suffers with her. Takiko doesn’t protest the system of arranged marriage (unlike the youngest, Taeko, who is starting to cause scandal and unrest with her unconventional behavior), but stoically goes through the rituals of presentation and withdrawal, approach and retreat, as the years pass.
In spite of the superficial similarities there’s not a trace of Austen’s wit and humor here, or of Trollope’s biting satire, unless I’m missing something that was lost in translation. Instead, we have a narrative painstakingly constructed of small domestic details and everyday routines, with the occasional lyrical passage that evokes the Japanese sense of beauty: the annual cherry blossom pilgrimage, a firefly hunt in the country, a set of poems written to an absent sister. There are some major upheavals, including a devastating flood that really did hit Osaka, but mostly there are just small hopes and disappointments, a round of ordinary concerns that some might find dull, others true-to-life. (It’s telling that we are able almost to forget the impending war, as the characters themselves seem to do, seldom referring to it except in brief comments about “the China problem.”)
The iron-clad tradition of the order of marriage is only one of the customs that define the sisters and their world. There are also lucky days and unlucky years that must be taken into account, funeral observances, subtle variations of dress, makeup and hairstyle, the finer points of arts like calligraphy and dance, and much more. To a western mindset, it feels extremely confining, but is also fascinating in its elaborate attention to rules and rituals. In my ignorance before starting the novel I had assumed the author was a woman — but Tanizaki’s gender doesn’t prevent him from creating a highly convincing and finely observed picture of a very feminine world. By the end, I felt as though I had truly experienced something of what it meant to be a Japanese woman in that time and place.
The contrast between traditional Osaka, where the Makiokas have their roots, and the brash new urban center of Tokyo, where the elder branch of the family has been obliged to relocate, is a major preoccupation for the Japanese that is somewhat lost on the outsider; the translator has to tell us when Osaka dialect is being used, for example, while a native reader would be able to simply experience the difference. One can’t help regretting the inability to appreciate such facets of the original language, but also appreciating how much Tanizaki in translation is able to convey the essence of Japan and its people.