Sunday, April 15, 2012

the brooding sort of wrath

It is impossible for me to ignore a book with jam on the cover. Jam draws attention, jam is the reason why I have been reading the copy of Fumiko Enchi's Masks that lay on my shelf for months unopened -- jam made me open it -- jam is the equivalent of the most enthusiastic critical assessment or review that anyone could ever write; there is nothing more convincing than jam. Towards the end of the book I came across this paragraph --

Mikamé's failure to explode seemed to grate on Sadako's nerves. She glared at him rigidly. But the aggressive nature evidenced in her unhesitating decision to hire a detective was nothing at all like the brooding sort of wrath that could force a woman's spirit to leave her body and wreak vengeance on a rival. Mikamé nodded, reassured, even as he felt her cold gaze on him.

-- which directs me to a force as strong as jam, namely, literature, since, as far as Enchi's reader is aware, Mikamé's only experience of women who go through the "brooding sort of wrath" that forces their spirits to leave their bodies and wreak vengeance, has come to him through The Tale of Genji (and possibly other unnamed stories from that period of Japanese history: ""Of late he too had taken an interest in the possessive spirits that cropped up in Heian literature"). Literature must have convinced him that he knows the difference between women who channel psychic violence and women who don't; if he had never read about that stark divide between aggressive women and brooding women then he would not have felt reassured. He is convinced of his own safety, thanks to literature. Brooding is the key.

Lady Rokujō in the Tale of Genji broods. At no point in Murasaki Shikibu's book does she hire a detective, or even make some Heian-appropriate motion in the direction of detective-hiring, and as every reader of the book knows, she is assumed to have taken revenge on Genji's other lovers by channeling psychic forces of violence. The memory of this character has reassured Mikamé, who is also a character, though if it hadn't been for the Tale of Genji he might never have worried about spirit vengeance in the first place.

A genuine Japanese man would have encountered the vengeful woman in a story elsewhere too (the woman either spirit-channeling or reappearing after death as mystic angry phantom), because she's not uncommon in Japanese fiction, but Mikamé is a book character, and not a member of any nation, and so I have to agree that he drinks from the source of knowledge his author gives him, which is primarily Genji.

In his two-dimensional fictional book-plane there is nothing to tell him for sure that any kind of spirit vengeance is being directed through any women; there is not even any proof that spirit vengeance is definitely taking place. But reading The Tale of Genji he feels certain, of course he knows that Lady Rokujō is unleashing spirit forces there, because the author directs him to that conclusion. His own author lets her reader know that certain female characters in Mikamé's world are directing vengeful spirit powers, but Mikamé can't read his own book. If he could then he would know, as I do, that his guesses are correct, that spirit vengeance is taking place, and that Sadako is not the cause or the conduit. Give him the power to read himself and he would know whether spirit vengeance was actually taking place and who was responsible.

The literature that he can read, gave him those suspicions, and the literature that he can't read would clean them away. If he knew about this blog post he would wish he could read it; he would be endlessly tantalised by the idea of this person (me here typing) who knows all the answers. In Mikamé's eyes I am an unnatural genius.

[to be continued]

Enchi's book was translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter.


  1. I am unable to read any further than the first paragraph until I am told the answer to the question that is overwhelming all my attention, namely: What kind of jam?

    1. I think it was peach, because there's an open jar of peach in the fridge.