Genji at the Pass!

16 Jul

What on Earth are we to make of “At the Pass,” Chapter 16 of our ongoing epic novel?

All our previous chapters have been miniature novels, sometimes ranging far and wide in terms of time and location, always playing with deceptive simplicity on some very complex chords of human behavior. Then we come to Sekiya, and what do we get? A traffic jam narrowly avoided and a bunch of sour grapes.

Genji’s still here, but more than in any previous chapter, we see him through the perceptions of others, and it’s a bit jarring – he feels like a secondary character, even while he’s front and center stirring all the action. Not that there’s much action: Genji goes on a pilgrimage to Ishiyama at the same time that the new Deputy Governor of Hitachi (and his wife, our old friend the lady of the cicada shell) is traveling to the city; both men have huge retinues and worry about the chaos that will ensue if they simply meet on the road – so the Deputy Governor’s party pulls aside to let Genji pass. Murasaki Shikibu of course doesn’t fail to provide her customary grace-notes:

It was the last day of the ninth month. Autumn leaves glowed in many colors, and expanses of frost-withered grasses drew the eye, while a brilliant procession in hunting cloaks embroidered or tie-dies to splendid advantage strode on past the barrier lodge.

Genji naturally reminisces about the lady, and sends her a note. She sends back a clever and slightly annoying response – a characteristic note that only prompts Genji to further reflection. In the meantime, the woman herself is having a rough time: her husband dies, and although with his last breath he urges his children to be kind to her, there’s tension (our author is the soul of discretion, but still, it’s easy to guess that the lady might not have been the easiest person to live with). When she starts to receive amorous attention from other highly-placed men, she of course finds it intolerable. After one particularly cloying such set of attentions from the Governor of Kawachi, she abruptly decides to become a nun (he’s outraged, and our author discreetly passes along the fact that people considered him boorish for it) – and boom, the chapter ends.

So: what to make of it? Sam Sacks has (rightly, I think) pointed out that this is as much The Tale of Genji’s Women as it is The Tale of Genji – and certainly the focus here bears that out. Is the underlying message supposed to be that the attentions of most men pale in women’s eyes to those of Genji? That life without him is a largely pallid and stale affair? Or merely to usher one of Genji’s many spent paramours offstage as quickly and neatly as possible?

Steve Donoghue

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