The Measure of Murasaki
The Fading Taj
She – a lady of noble birth – sat down on the terrace of a temple while in the silver lake below the pale face of the moon was reflected on the calm, translucent water and commenced composing the world’s first complete novel which was to be hailed one thousand years later as a work of psychological profundity carrying sound testimony of an insight sharper than that of Freud or Proust or Lawrence!
She was born somewhere in the seventies of the 10th century A.D. Few events in the history of the world’s literature equal the event of her birth. This columnist proposes to the Japanese writers as well as to the writers of the world: Let it celebrate the thousandth birth anniversary of the Lady during the nineteen seventies. (The exact date and year of her birth are not known.)
Spread over fifty-four chapters, The Tale of Genji, written by Lady Murasaki around 1000 A.D. yet remains the greatest fiction in Japanese literature, “probably the finest work ever created by a woman,” and for its delicacy of theme, restrained and graceful exposition, vastness of structure, euphonic delineation of the old Japan’s sublime natural splendor, and for lyrical wealth, one of the greatest monuments of creative literature in the world. The story is built around prince Genji – his romances. But the spontaneous manner in which it represented the atmosphere of the enchanting island of 1000 A.D. (three centuries before its being revealed for the first time to Europe as Zipangu by Marco Polo), steeped in a tone of melancholy, is a unique feast of reading delight.
Lady Murasaki succeeds in tossing into the frame of the main plot several stories and causeries with a Dostoevskian ease and mastery. For instance, when poor Samano-Kami, who was recently made a Doctor of Literature and was hence “inflating his feathers” (like a fowl) was given a chance to narrate his experiences in love, he gave an account of two adventures each of which could be developed into an amusing story of considerable length. Trying to civilize his first love, who was a simple-hearted but extremely jealous lady, the little scholar irritated her so much that snatching her lover’s hand, she thrust his little finger into her mouth and bit off the end of it! “Then not withstanding my pain,” narrates the scholar, “I became quite cool and collected, and calmly said that insulated and maimed as I have been, it is most fitting that I should absent myself for the future from the polite society.” However, he sticks on to the polite society only to discover under extremely funny situation that his second love “gave a share of her heart” to another nobleman.
With a sigh, comments his listener, who too has a similar experience, “Whom then are we to choose? All this variety and this perplexing difficulty of choice seems to be the common lot of humanity.” (Mark, Existentialists!)
There are pathetic episodes and amusing episodes – according to the book’s celebrated English translator Arthur Waley – artistically arranged to balance. Besides, the work abounds in lyrical properties. These lines are carelessly penned by the hero:
Where the cicada casts her shell
In the shadows of the tree,
There is one who I love well,
Though her heart is cold to me.
This small verse reaches a lady who adds:
Amidst dark shadows of the tree
Cicada’s wing with dew is wet.
So in mine eyes unknown to thee,
Spring sweet tears of fond regret!
“Murasaki” is supposed to be a pseudonym. It is also believed that the name of the finest feminine character in the book being the same, posterity has loved to know the authoress by that name. Whatever be her name, this fusion of the creator with her creation in the imagination of the people is remarkable indeed. But the Lady Murasaki has been given still greater honour. She has got fused with the legendary bounty of Japan’s natural glory. As one of her translators, Suyematz Kenchio, writes, “ Many Europeans, I dare say, have noticed on our lacquer work and the art subjects the representation of a lady seated at a writing desk, with a pen held in her tiny fingers, gazing at the moon reflected in a lake. This lady is no other than our authoress.”