The Tale of Genji

Murasaki Shikibu

Book cover

Like most books of this length (>1100 pages), there is a lot to say about Genji. I decided to read it because I’d be taking a trip to Japan, and specifically to Kyoto–the setting of Genji–in March of this year. It took me most of January and February to get through it!

I’ll start by saying that I can’t make a strong recommendation to read it. It was a worthwhile experience, but it was also a struggle at times, and I can’t imagine many people wanting to read through the whole thing.

That said, here’s some stuff I found interesting about Genji. First and foremost, it amazed me how basically relatable the story and characters were for a book written over a thousand years ago in a country that had had zero contact with Western cultures at the time. Sure, there is a lot that’s weird about the setting, mostly related to the role of the Heian-period nobility (who don’t really “do” anything besides compose poems, play musical instruments, and go to moon-viewing parties–despite having official titles like “Commander”). But the motivations, interests, and concerns of the main characters–mostly around romantic pursuits, but also around subtler things like the balance between solitude and sociability, social position and public image–feel remarkably familiar. This might come across as a fairly trite observation–“human nature is the same everywhere!”–but consider that the most famous approximately-contemporaneous piece of Western literature is “Beowulf,” which deals with concerns that feel far more alien to a modern reader. It’s probably not a big stretch to say that Heian Japan was more similar to modern Western society than Dark Ages England, but it’s also remarkable if you stop to think about it.

As a piece of literature, by far the most interesting part of “Genji” for me was the prominent role of poetry into the story. Being able to compose poetry regularly and on the spot was an important skill for Heian nobles. Much regular communication between nobles–particularly related to courting, but not only that–was carried on in the forms of poems written back and forth and delivered by messengers, often multiple times per day. Beyond that, characters in the story often compose poems on the spot that they speak verbally to one another. These poems are typically couplets, which often “quote” famous poems (which the translator regularly footnotes when they are known) and include seasonal nature references. They are an important way of communicating because the social norm is to be quite indirect about feelings and desires–generally the proper way to express these is within a poem that hints at the underlying point. (For fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation, it’s kind of similar to the Tamarian language in “Darmok,” where they will say something like, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” instead of “Let’s cooperate on this.”) Anyway, the richness of reference and subtlety in these poems is incredible. I guess in some ways it is similar to how Abe Lincoln and others of his time had such a strong command of biblical reference, but several notches more. I have no way of knowing whether it’s an accurate depiction of the actual poetry shared by nobles of that period, or an idealization, but given how little else they had to do, I would totally believe it. One of the fun parts for me was gradually catching on over the course of the book to be able to tell when poems were “good” or “bad,” and even starting to recognize some of the more common references. Murasaki pokes fun at some characters for being inordinately bad poets, and it’s a credit to the translator that he’s able to make this come through in English.

I think the main things that held “Genji” back for me were the plot and characters. The plot is fairly directionless, mostly consisting of Genji pursuing various women and occasionally lamenting about how he wants to leave society and become a monk. There is a tiny bit of palace intrigue, with Genji going away into exile for a short period, but nothing you can really sink your teeth into. After Genji dies (about 23 of the way through), basically the same thing continues with his descendants Niou and Kaoru. In terms of the characters, most of them are fairly flat. You don’t really see the interiority of almost anyone, with the partial exceptions of Genji himself, Kaoru, and maybe Ukifune near the very end of the book. Most of the romantic interests are just of the “inexplicable love at first sight” variety, and the friendships are fairly flat as well. Honestly the best part of the book in terms of characterization and relationships is in the last part after Genji dies, with the developing mentor relationship between Kaoru and Hachinomiya, and the relationships of Kaoru with the latter’s daughters.

In terms of preparing me for a visit to Kyoto, many of the features were recognizable–natural landmarks, of course, but also main avenues, palaces, and even some shrines that have been in use for over a thousand years. We didn’t end up going to the “Genji” museum in Uji, because it didn’t look like it was that cool.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars