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17 February 2013

'The Makioka Sisters' by Junichiro Tanizaki translated by Edward G. Seidensticker

This book cannot be rushed.  You miss too much if you rush, which is surprising since nothing much happens.  There are moments of drama and action, several illnesses, a flood, an amputation and a birth, but these are punctuation marks in the lives of these sisters; like the the joys and tragedies in any life.  Pride and decline are the predominant themes of this magnificent book.  Small comments, subtle choices, silences and discretion uncover familial and societal pride.

Most of the book is told from the point of view of Sachiko, the second of the four sisters from a prominent Osaka merchant family, now in declining fortunes.  The story tells about the hunt for a husband for Yukiko, the third sister, a task made all the more difficult because she is thirty at the start of the book.  Every now and again the author drifts towards someone else or follows someone out of the house in Ashiya, in the suburbs of Osaka.  As a reader we then explore thoughts, motivations, actions and intimate moments.  The book draws attention to the passage of time, missed opportunities and a pride misapplied in a modernized world.  The family is in decline as their core business is sold off and their representative family, that of the eldest sister, Tsuruko, moves to Tokyo.  But pride in the past has set expectations especially for the oldest sisters and so pride justifies manipulation, selfishness and cowardice.  But these are not grand schemes that the sisters set against each other.  Scores are settled and seniority (rank) is imposed by not answering letters promptly, not giving all the pertinent information, and silence instead of clarity and transparency.

I surprised myself with thoughts such as "I don't like her very much" or "she's just a pain in the ...".  These thoughts were not due to clumsy character development. Quite the opposite, they were the result of excellent writing.  Sachiko or Yukiko are not introduced as obvious heroines.  No one is.  There are no obvious sign posts to tell the reader what to feel and how to understand someone.  The book unveils them slowly.  The mystery of their character, their inner core as it were, becomes visible through time and gentle actions.  This is the treat of this slow moving book.  My favorite character is Teinosuke, Sachiko's husband.  He has taken the Makioka name and therefore their interests.  He slowly turns into a man who cares for his wife and her family with just the right balance of pragmatism and affection. Not that he changes the attitude of the sisters but he seems to bring sanity to the page and to their helpful acquaintance after yet another failed proposal.

Their declining fortunes have slowed the proposals for Yukiko.  Moreover, the previous (numerous) rejected suitors have left the impression that the family is too proud.  And so it goes...The book dissects a family and left me feeling satisfied.  Tanikazi sets his own pace.  In the Makioka homes we perceive a bit of where Japanese society heads with blind pride and stubbornness.  Modernization and thoughtless actions for the sake of progress is as ruinous as pride in a past that no longer exists.  The youngest sister, Taeko, the most modern of the sisters and the one who saw the least of the family fortune, plunges into romantic and sexual affairs, smokes and (imagine) wants a career.  Teinosuke does not see a problem with a modern woman. He sees problems with a proud family that does not support her and on the other end, a proud little sister that does not consult or heed advice.  Tragedy is the result.  All this occurs on the eve of WWII.  The book becomes poignant when I realize that it ends in 1941.  Moreover Tanizaki attempted to publish it in 1943 but was censored for showing a feminine, soft society.  Obviously, someone was not reading carefully.  Though I do not suppose that the real message of the book was any more palatable to the military in Japan at the time.  Some books have "classic" written on the cover... this book reminded me why.

Junichiro Tanizaki 
ISBN: 9780749397104 

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