Although our gorgeous hero Genji is, in British parlance, a toff, a git, and a wanker, Murasaki Shikibu consistently maintains the expectation that he’s supposed to elicit our sympathy. In all of literature, he may be the single least sympathetic character to have such an inexhaustible (although knowingly ironic) champion, but how seldom does it work! We read of trials and misfortunes – Suma is rife with them, and they spill over to the beginning of Akashi – and we are informed repeatedly of how miserable these misfortunes make our young gallant, but we never feel sorry for him, not now, at least, not so early in the book when so many of his troubles are products of his own fatuous, privileged behavior.
We can never forget his exalted status, or how boneheadedly selfish it makes him. Yes, we say, this bad thing happened to him, and this, and this – but didn’t he deserve it all, somehow? At this point we don’t even suspect his misfortunes of being refining fires that will temper him – we’ve seen too often how little he appreciates his own luck.
That luck holds spectacularly true at the beginning of the jewel-like, multi-faceted Akashi, that most quiet and melancholy of all Genji’s early chapters. Storms beat the Sumi coast where Genji is sitting out his disgrace and waiting for his pardon; there’s unprecedented wind, rain, thunder, lightning, and hail. A messenger brings him tidings that the same unnatural weather is paralyzing the city, and things get worse: lightning strikes Genji’s wing of the house, and he and his retainers are forced to huddle with the common folk in the kitchen’s flickering candlelight. But lightning doesn’t strike Genji, and the storm-waves stop just short of his door, and through the tempest come the amazing good luck of a an emissary from the far more civilized nearby beach on Akashi. Even the winds some how direct themselves to speed Genji to his new host: more luxurious, better provisioned, and with the added allure of a reclusive beauty.
One things that’s clear in these early chapters: Genji never forgets the fascination he felt in “The Broom Tree” at the idea that there might be beautiful, accomplished women out there in the world utterly hidden from the prying exposure of renown. He’s like a bloodhound now for such hidden treasures – although in Akashi he’s given ample assistance by the girl’s ambitious father (our author’s sotto voce mockery of the father’s hopes of spiritual purification are as exquisitely delicate as everything else she writes).
But I don’t care if he’s away from home or if lightning barely misses him; in Akashi my sympathies – everybody’s sympathies – are reserved for the poor girl (disturbing, at least to the modern West, that there’s doubt as to just how young she is in this chapter). Here is our Nausicaa parallel from the Odyssey, only in Akashi the pretty little princess is not humbly thanked by her storm-tossed prince but badgered, ravished, and abandoned. She knows she can’t match his sophisticated court theatrics (as usual, a world of meaning is packed into her choice of stationery); she considers her father’s hopes for her humiliating and preposterous, but what choice does she have? It’s acquiesce or throw herself (or be thrown, likely) into the sea. Despite her foolish father, she’s certain nothing can ever come of Genji’s dalliance (the book’s original audience knew her whole story and so could savor the irony, and the book’s modern day re-readers can love her all the more for her humble origins), and she’s not all that surprised when his pardon comes and he assembles his retinue to return to the city.
And can there be anything cooler or more self-possessed than the half-line of poetry Lady Murasaki quips to Genji when she learns of this rustic paragon who’s so enchanted him? It’s the withering sophistication of the city completely annihilating the fragile simplicity of the country. As far as that poor country girl knows, she’s been used and completely forgotten – now that’s what I call a trial and a misfortune.