Thursday, 23 August 2012

Rivalry by Kafu Nagai

Recently published in paperback, this translation by Stephen Snyder is the first complete translation of Rivalry/ Udekurabe to appear in English, the translation from 1963 by Kurt Meissner and Ralph Friedrich was taken from an early commercial and incomplete edition of the novel, Snyder's translation includes passages and scenes that were edited out due to their erotic nature. The novel was first serialized in Japan in 1916, whilst reading the novel and almost turning every other page I couldn't help but be confronted with the age old question - what constitutes a classic?. It would be interesting to read a criticism of the novel from a feminist perspective, although Kafu's narrative has a subdued empathy for the women depicted in it, the panorama offered through the portraits of the characters offers an in depth insight into the Taisho age and the receding world of the geisha, the novel  steps out of being a gender study or character study but depicts the human world in all of it's fragility and exhausting desperation, nearly all the characters are wrestling with how fate will treat them. The novel seems to dip into differing genres and narrative styles, sometimes the reading feels fabalistic as if coming from the old world, but then by turns it serves to chronicle Kafu's contemporary world, both exploring the inner world of the main character, Komayo, a bereaved woman and geisha returning to the area she had started off from, and then also moving from character by character it begins to examine each of their worlds and inner thinking. Set predominantly in Shimbashi the action of the novel spills over into Tsukiji and Asakusa,  topographically  the novel is of huge interest, the narrative informs with many references and descriptions of the geisha's world, in particularly the hairstyles and clothing of the geisha. Initially Komayo meets Yoshioka, a man she had known from her past, the relationship though is strained, true intentions remain obscure, through a meeting of another character, Komayo's heart begins to be pulled in another direction.

Although the main narrative follows Komayo's progress, the novel's focus dips in and out of the lives of the orbiting characters, creating a fascinating patchwork of characters representative of the times, the slightly lecherous Yoshioka, the man whom Komayo had a previous relationship, also Jukichi and Gozan who run the geisha house where Komayo is based, and at the beginning they receive a visit from novelist and storyteller Kurayama Nanso, who has a later chapter devoted to him where what appears to be an abandoned house holds an enchantment for the writer, this scene in turn though Kafu uses to make connections with the other pivotal character to the book, Segawa Isshi a famous onnagata actor, who becomes the potential suitor at the centre of the rivalry. Nanso is a curious character with a deep empathy of the passing of the old, the reader can't help from contemplating how much of Kafu could be depicted in Nanso. As the book continues another sub-narrative emerges concerning the sons of Jukichi and Gozan, Shohachi and the wayward Takijiro, another narrative follows Segawa when he meets poet/writer Yamai Kaname, described as the 'Verlaine of Japan', who contemplates writing a novel in the style of The Cathedral by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, through these fragmented but inter joining narratives Kafu opens up an area of narrative space, objectifying the characters and their environment, the prose becomes imbued with a fully realized but questioning and curious nostalgia. The narrative returns again to Komayo facing her fate amidst the competition for Segawa, Kafu shows that sometimes fate can turn and intervene in spite of the human effort exerted in order to shape it, a fascinating novel.

Rivalry - A Geisha's Tale at Columbia University Press              


Unknown said...

I've got a copy of this on my shelves - I saw it at The Book Depository a while back for a ludicrous amount of money (around $5), and I couldn't resist. I liked Snyder's work with Yoko Ogawa's 'Hotel Iris', so that's another reason to get to it sooner rather than later :)

me. said...

$5 sounds like a great deal, this was my first reading of Kafu and I enjoyed it greatly, perhaps my next port of call will be Seidensticker's Kafu the Scribbler, which I think collects translated short stories along with a biography. One of my favourite passages from Rivalry -

As they did so, the elderly Gozan, watering can in hand, made his way up to tend to the morning glories that grew on the platform beneath the drying rack. He stepped out onto the roof at just the moment when shamisen practice in the neighboring houses fell silent, giving way to the hour of bath, when cotton robes hung out to dry flapped in the evening breeze carrying the smell of coal fires and telephones began to ring impatiently. Evening in the pleasure quarters.

Should have included that in my post, but there are so many evocative passages in this novel, looking forward to reading your thoughts on it.

Unknown said...

I read 'The River Sumida' in the Keene anthology I reviewed a while back, and that's what prompted me to search for more of his work :)

me. said...

Thinking about it I've got quite a few of Kafu's short stories spread across various anthologies, including the one by Keene, may have to read through these first. Not too sure why but I rarely read an anthology cover to cover, but dip into them as and when.