Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki
10 September, 2009
Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki was published as Chijin no Ai or A Fool’s Love in 1924 in serial form. Because of the content of the novel, it caused an uproar amongst its Japanese readers and Tanizaki was forced to give up publication. It was later taken up by another magazine and completed.
Reading the novel almost 85 years later, it is indeed shockingly modern. Of course it was a contemporary novel then so that the descriptions of everyday life are sweetly nostalgic now, taking you back to a Japan that was on the cusp of change and which no longer exists. But like today, the Japanese are alternately suspicious of and still in love with everything western. What is still surprising is the daring content of the novel. It is essentially a story of a man in his thirties who falls in love and grooms a young girl of fifteen to become a suitable wife. This in itself is not that shocking in the context of Japanese literature as there are many stories of this ilk, except for its treatment of sex. There is no explicit language or scenes, but the novel is about the sexual relationship between Jōji Kawai and Naomi. I wouldn’t go as far as calling it love. Or maybe it is, a complex, twisted kind of love.
Jōji is a successful company employee who sets up house with Naomi. He marries her and tries to educate her, transforming her from a hostess into a cultured, westernised young woman. Her family background is such that she would probably have ended up becoming a prostitute. Jōji is a respectable and practical man, putting aside money each month and living soberly. This changes with the arrival of Naomi. He whisks her away from her sad, pathetic life and sets her up in a modern artist’s studio in which they indulge in playing house. Jōji is not interested in having a traditional wife, and they spend their days playing, dancing and eating out. Naomi doesn’t cook or clean and spends her time shopping for clothes. Jōji is happy with this and is proud to show her off. As Naomi gets older she makes friends of her own. She doesn’t surround herself with girlfriends, but boys from the nearby university. Jōji slowly succumbs to jealousy as his tenuous hold on Naomi beomes strained. Naomi is someone with her own mind and knows what she wants, cleverly manipulating the men around her. Their relationship and life together slowly breaks down, and when they finally go away on holiday to a nearby town, the situation explodes when Jōji discovers Naomi’s betrayal.
I have to confess that I was actually impressed by the way Tanizaki ended his novel. It didn’t leave me happy, but it was realistic and I could imagine the ending scenes playing out in countless relationships all over the world and throughout time. I felt sorry for almost all the characters that populated Tanizaki’s novel. And even though this novel disturbed me, I found that I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Tanizaki leaves you pondering about the nature of love. Not romantic love, but love that grasps you and won’t let you go, no matter how much hurt and betrayal it leaves in its wake. People are essentially selfish, and you make choices according to your needs, regardless of whether it is good for you or not. Ultimately, Jōji and Naomi deserve each other.
The copy I read and which belongs to my sister is the one on the left, but I couldn’t resist posting all three images because they encapsulate the essence of Naomi so beautifully.
Naomi is not a long novel, but the themes Tanizaki touches upon are profound. Overall, I thought this novel was magnificent, even though you cannot fall in love with any of the characters. It is deceptively simple, and the writing/translation subtly draws you in. There’s not a lot of plot twists, but Jōji and Naomi are vibrant characters and you won’t forget them easily. You cannot but applaud Naomi for her resilience, her joie de vivre and her survival instincts.
I, for one, am eager to read more of Tanizaki’s novels. The next one on my TBR list is The Makioka Sisters, Tanizaki’s most famous novel.