Some Prefer Nettles

Every worm to his taste;

some prefer to eat nettles.

Happy New Year!

So, right after I finished Murakami’s book, I thought I would read some more Japanese literature, which led me to Junichiro Tanizaki.

Tanizaki is a legend in Japan. Most of his novels deal with the issues between the East and the West in Japan and how Japanese cope with the cultural changes that are occurring within their community, cities, and lives. I read Tanizaki’s Naomi a couple of years ago and I really liked how he dealt with these issues with his characters. So, I thought I should check out one of his most well known novels, Some Prefer Nettles.

For some reason, I thought that Some Prefer Nettles would be a lot like Naomi, which was a more in depth analysis of how traditional Japanese characters take it upon themselves to changes their lives into what they consider Western norms and how this affects their overall attitude with life and love. However, this was not the case, Naomi was written much earlier in Tanizaki’s career, whereas Some Prefer Nettles was written much later when the author started to see the apparent and miserable changes that were occurring around his country. What appeared to be a story that was filled with sexuality and eroticism is more about the destruction of the modern family life and how Western and Eastern culture is not so black and white.

Anyway, the story is about a married  couple, Kaname and Misako, who are on the verge of a divorce – or  so they keep claiming. Kaname has long lost interest in Misako and has not slept with her in about…three years. Misako, feeling the neglect and loneliness of her marriage starts to see another man, Aso, and sparks begin to fly. Eventually, she confesses to her husband of her attraction to Aso, to which Kaname replies that she should go for it. Thus starts her affair with Aso under Kaname’s guidance. The two agree to get a divorce, but postpone the ordeal for God knows what reason and that is the entire story. Nothing gets resolved. Nothing really happens. Yet, the story is much more complex than my synopsis.

The story is told through a third person omniscient narrator, but most of the thoughts that you read are from Kaname. He is the protagonist of the story and his story is very isolating and a bit sad. Kaname lives a life devoid of passion. He imagines what life could be like and has certain opinions about women, sex, Japan, and the West, but once you look into his mind you see  that life is not as clear cut as he thinks it is. He believes that certain aspects, like divorce, are extremely Western and it is a common, everyday thing that married couples do – which is not exactly the case. He also believes that certain Japanese routines are extremely Eastern, like his father-in-law’s mistress, O-hisa, who is primmed to be an Osaka doll – when in reality, she also uses Western products like compacts and sunscreen. What the novel proves to show is that things are not what they seem, even though things appear to be binaries, they are in reality working together to make a realistic whole. Nothing is purely Japanese and nothing is purely American, what really matters is if you find an equal balance between the two that makes you happy.

So, would I recommend this book? I have some qualms about the entire book. Nothing happens and it’s all cerebral. Kaname is also a pretty dull protagonist, it is as if he cannot allow himself to feel any sort of emotion that is not neutral, which gets a bit dull. However, the book is very aged and works as a historical piece. The novel was written for people living in 1927 and although that may have been modern for that time period, for this time period it is very aged, which proves to be something interesting. I didn’t know all that much about the classical puppet doll theater or the traditional aesthetic of Kyoto women. (O-hisa is considered a “traditional Kyoto beauty” because her two front teeth are discolored. Actually, her teeth are really busted, the roots of her teeth are black – pretty sure that’s gingivitis – and she has a sharp protruded eyetooth that bites into her lip)

Based on this information, I would recommend this book if you are looking to learn more about Japanese culture and literature, otherwise you would probably get bored. So, if you want a cerebral book about Japan, go for it, otherwise go read something else…like Naomi.

Tanizaki Junichiro

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