A Rake’s Progress

5 Jul

With Chapter 12, our young lord’s errant ways have finally caught up to him, and what does it isn’t rape, kidnapping, or any other of the actions we might term criminal in modern parlance. Merely making off with other people’s daughters is a trifle, but indulge in a consensual relationship with a not particularly high-ranking courtesan attached to your brother, the Emperor, and off you go to Suma. Genji finds himself done in by his own tackiness. At least, that’s what I call macking on your brother’s girlfriend; Genji may be oh-so-fashionable and handsome, but a class act he ain’t.

Suma isn’t all that far from Kyoto as the crow flies; people living in Kyoto today can make a quick day-trip by train to sun themselves on Suma’s salty shores, which are currently considered no more dreary, windswept, or out-of-the-way than any other patch of coast. In fact, Suma is a sort of spring-break party beach, where people get drunk and ridiculous on a mass scale, float around on pool toys, and wile away their evenings in packed dance clubs. Any attempt to quote Chinese poetry there, while observing the pathetic spectacle of saltmakers and rustic fishermen, is likely to wind up with you taking a poorly-controlled Frisbee to the face.

Genji’s stay in Suma doesn’t really seem to hurt him any; a number of retainers go down with him; he has constant visitors and letters, and even tries his hand at painting – and, being the Shining Genji that he is – turns out to be a dab hand at it, churning out melancholy seascapes at an alarming rate. No, I rather feel sorry for Murasaki, who is forced to remain behind. Given the extreme limitations placed on women at this time, the exile is surely more of a punishment of her than him – he can still travel about a bit, see friends, and – as we’ll soon see – even resume his “gallantry.” She just has to stay shut up behind her curtains.

I also feel rather sorry for our poor Emperor. He isn’t really very upset with Genji’s betrayal – he knows that, around women, Genji has about as much control as Yogi Bear faced with a pic-a-nic basket. To quote a baseball commonplace, his brother’s pursuit of Oborozukiyo is just Genji being Genji. Banishing Genji is a matter of optics; if Emperor doesn’t do it, people will lose respect for him – and with his political opponents already seeking to make hay of his relative youth and inexperience, he has to look tough on this issue. What makes it all for the worse is his very genuine affection for the Mistress of Staff; he continues to dote on her, which likely undercuts whatever tough-guy image he bought himself by banishing Genji in the first place.

But banishment to Suma isn’t all that persecutes our hero. At the tail end of the chapter, Genji again faces the downside of spectacular beauty, as his purification rituals are interrupted by a supernatural personage of high standing – none other than than the Dragon King of the Sea – a great admirer of beauty – who sends a great storm to “summon” Genji under the waves. Yikes! First a freaky ghost kills Genji’s girlfriend, then jealousy transforms one of his other girlfriends into a living revenant that kills his wife just after childbirth, and now he has some kind of Japanese Poseidon after him. Un-cosmetic surgery might be in order, or at least a good case of acne. Being gorgeous is kind of a drag if it means you get continually haunted by spooks, place-spirits, and other folkloric boogymen. But Genji isn’t so dramatic as to deface himself; I sense that, rather than give himself the Joker/Phantom of the Opera treatment, our protagonist is about to get out of Dodge…

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