Tanizaki captured in full flow

by Donald Richie

THE GOURMET CLUB: A Sextet, By Jun’ichiro Tanizaki. Translated by Paul McCarthy and Anthony Chambers. Tokyo/New York: Kodansha International, 2001, 204 pp., 2,800 yen.

This is the long-awaited collection of six of Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s shorter works, given us by two of the most eminent of Tanizaki’s translators. Including work as early as 1911 and as late as 1955, this volume encompasses some 45 years in the career of one of Japan’s greatest modern writers.

Tanizaki’s novels are well-known, but some of his finest works are his stories, few of which have ever been translated. The earliest included here is the 1911 “Shonen” (translated by Anthony Chambers as “The Children”), a famous text about how children really play with each other, here serving as a curtain raiser to other stories displaying the author’s full-blown interest in what doctors call sadomasochistic sex.

The 1911 “Himitsu” appears in Chambers’ revised translation (the first version appeared in the University of Michigan’s 1993 tribute to Edward Seidensticker, “New Leaves”) as “The Secret.” The secret is that the protagonist hides his gender under the kimono of a traditional Japanese woman, doing so partly so that he can continue his affair with a real Japanese woman.

Both of these early stories are delightfully illustrative of the erotically grotesque world of the young author, full of aestheticized sex, a quality suggested by the term “tanbishugi” — which Japanese university professors still use to designate the author.

Tanizaki had, however, numerous styles. One of them is illustrated in the 1918 “Futari no Chigo,” which Paul McCarthy has translated as “The Two Acolytes.” Spare, elegant, restrained, this is the story of two young priests and the separate paths they chose. Any temptation to return to the hot-house world of “The Children” is resisted, and the placid style of classical Japanese narration is sought and beautifully found.

The final three stories in the sextet find Tanizaki back in mature, outrageous form. That he is one of the great comic writers of the century is not well-known abroad, since the great comic stories have not been hitherto translated. Here, however, is proof.

The 1919 “Bishoku Kurabu,” which McCarthy has translated as “The Gourmet Club,” is filled with a typical and glorious excess. The overflowing sensuousness of Tanizaki turned on full is palpable in this story of a strange, Chinese-style eatery where “Phlegm-and-Spittle Liquid Jade” is among the least repulsive items on the menu.

“Aozuka-shi no Hanashi,” the 1926 story that McCarthy translates as “Mr. Bluemound,” reflects both Tanizaki’s early interest in cinema (he once worked for a film company and wrote a number of scripts) and his lifelong obsession with appearances and the possible realities behind them. This particular excursion rambles so far that it was originally censored by government fiat. Its logical but outrageous conclusions about virtual reality are a shock even now.

The final story is “Kasankamangansui no Yume,” written in 1955, just 10 years before the author’s death. Translated by Chambers as “Manganese Dioxide Dreams,” it was written more or less at the same time as that stunning final masterpiece, “Futen Rojin Nikki,” which Howard Hibbett translated so splendidly in 1965 as “The Diary of a Mad Old Man.”

Again, the work is in journal form and seems merely the digressive jotting of some elderly party until we realize the dangerous direction in which it is flowing. As the jacket blurb succinctly puts it, we are offered “a tantalizing insight into the author’s mind as he blends Chinese and Japanese cuisine, a French murder movie, and the contents of a toilet bowl.”

One of the joys of reading Tanizaki is that while the most basic of human passions are fully explored, this is done with an honesty and a delicacy not often associated with such subject matter. As one’s own worse nature threatens to be revolted, one’s better is melted by the beauty of the observation.

Such prose needs extraordinary translation, and Tanizaki has been much more fortunate than most Japanese authors. He appears before us in the words of Seidensticker, of Hibbett, of Chambers and McCarthy — all themselves stylists, all concerned not only with accuracy, but also with voice, with tone and with the specific gravity of their author’s prose.