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In Junichiro Tanizaki’s final novel, which was published just before he died in 1965, the writer posed an almost insoluble question: Is there a link between sexual desire and the impulse to extend one’s physically active existence and live to a ripe old age?

Diary of a Mad Old Man, by Junichiro Tanizaki
Translated by Howard Hibbett
177 pages
TUTTLE PUBLISHING

After 77-year-old Tokusuke Utsugi, a man of refined tastes, succumbs to a stroke, he finds that despite the gradual collapse of his body, his sexual appetites remain sharp. Is this an impediment or a gift? The focus of his resurgent lust and more than a few cranky fantasies on how to gratify it is not his wife or nurse, but rather his daughter-in-law, Satsuko, the type of modern woman that Tanizaki often places in opposition to men whose values belong to a bygone age. A former cabaret artist, Satsuko stands for everything Tokusuke despises. Against his better judgment, however, he allows her to become the object of his humiliating sexual worship. Satsuko, out of boredom and her own frustrations with married life, flirts with Tokusuke on and off and indulges his foot fetish.

What might be an over-febrile study of a mind warped by frustrated desires and a man railing against impotence, turns out to be a nuanced study into the psychology of old age, one tinged with humor and irony. This short and highly enjoyable novel, which was over before I realized it, ends with Tokusuke poring over rubbings made of Satsuko’s feet, impressions that will be handed to a stonecutter who will carve them onto his tombstone. If his wish is realized, the incisions, carefully measured to match the dimensions recorded in Chinese archives, will resemble the sacred stone footprints of Buddha.

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