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‘Quicksand’: A racy transition from old Tanizaki to new

by Damian Flanagan

Contributing Writer

A young lady from Osaka begins to attend an art class and, while painting a picture of the Kannon (the goddess of mercy), substitutes the head for that of a beguiling student. Soon, she is drawn into a complex web of lesbian passion, pitted against the social norms of marriage in a deadly game that will engulf both the women and their male partners.

Quicksand, by Junichiro Tanizaki.
Translated by Howard Hibbett.
240 pages
VINTAGE CLASSICS, Fiction.

This 1931 novel is classic Tanizaki and shows off his talent for exuberant storytelling within a multi-layered narrative of sexual obsession. To win in this battle of heterosexual versus homosexual love, its leads are prepared to use everything at their disposal: trickery and lies, legal contracts, blackmail, detectives, feigned suicides and even the threat of poison.

Tanizaki’s descriptions of Osaka’s Showa Era (1926-89) pleasure quarters are an added delight as he shuttles his characters from their refined homes in Hanshin to offices in southern Osaka, a style that prefigured his later series, “The Makioka Sisters.” And, as always, Tanizaki is alert to the maidservants buzzing around the protagonists, acting at their beck and call but threatening mutiny when abused.

While “Quicksand” is professionally-executed and stylized entertainment, its racy plot twists lack the depth of “The Makioka Sisters,” a more stately but ultimately satisfying evocation of prewar Kansai. For the Tanizaki connoisseur though, “Quicksand” is a fascinating example of his transition from the technically brilliant detective fiction of his youth to the social realism of his middle age.

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