Born in the late Meiji Era (1868-1912), Fumiko Enchi was not simply the peer, but the equal of writers in the order of Naoya Shiga and Jiro Osaragi. There was praise for her work from such authors as Junichiro Tanizaki and Yasunari Kawabata, towering figures in Japanese literature. Enchi, in other words, was a writer’s writer, someone who never lapsed into the easy commercialism that marred other authors of the day. Yukio Mishima judged her short novel “Masks” “an esoteric masterpiece.”

Masks, by Fumiko Enchi, Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter.
Vintage Books.

In a little over 100 pages, Enchi explores the curious pathology of dependence between her main character, the intelligent and beautiful widow Yasuko, and her mother-in-law, Mieko. So intimate is the relationship that it excludes the advances and overtures of the sexually aroused and totally besotted Ibuki, who fails to comprehend the meaning of the special bond that unites the two women.

The very embodiment of composure, Yasuko’s interest in the occult and her apparent abilities to make contact with the spirits and to seduce and manipulate men hint at the qualities possessed by a shamaness. As Ibuki attempts to negotiate the disorienting force field of erotic sensations radiating from Yasuko, the beauty of Enchi’s writing reduces the reader into the state of a helpless bystander, as the characters in her story decide the degree to which their conduct qualifies as a transgression of social norms.

Read archived reviews of Japanese classics at jtimes.jp/essential.

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