Since graduating from college I have moved house five times, hopping from where I grew up on the west coast to Japan, then to the midwest, the east coast and finally setting up what seems to be a semi-permanent life (or at least for a few more years) in Switzerland. All that moving means I’ve carted my possessions across nearly 16,000 miles. As most of you bibliophiles can imagine, those book boxes start to get pretty heavy. So I learned to be very careful about which books I hold on to and which books I don’t mind leaving behind.
One of the books I have lugged with me, literally from continent to continent is Enchi Fumiko’s Masks. I first read this book for a Japanese literature class in college and count it as one of my all-time favorites. It’s a dark, gritty book dealing with issues of sexuality, manipulation and the oppression inherent in Japan’s patriarchal culture. The best word I have to describe this novel is intense. Everything about it is intense – structure, theme, intertextuality, social criticism. In short, it can withstand a lot of re-reading.
So knowing how I feel about that book, I was not at all surprised to find myself absorbed in another dark, intensely feminist novel by the same author – Enchi’s The Waiting Years. Enchi took over eight years to write The Waiting Years and for it she won Japan‘s highest literary award – no small feat for a novel with such a glaring social critique.
The Waiting Years is also a ripping good read. The novel details the life of Tomo, a paragon of wifely submission, and her husband Yukitomo, a paragon of selfish arrogance. Not only does Yukitomo bring a concubine into their household, he has Tomo go to Tokyo to pick the girl out. Later, he seduces (although rape is more likely what happened) one of their servants and makes that woman his second concubine. Eventually, he begins an affair with his daughter-in-law. Tomo must bear each of these insults in silence as well as stamp out any desire for self-assertion or self-fulfillment. Literally, her entire life is lived only to validate her husband’s life. She has nothing, and is nothing, on her own.
In exchange for her willing subservience she has what none of the other women in the novel are allowed to have – legitimacy. Enchi dives freely into the minds of the other women, portraying their own stifled unhappiness. As his mistresses, they are assured Yukitomo’s love and consideration but no necessary legal benefits, neither for themselves nor for their children. As his wife, Tomo is guaranteed the outward strappings of happiness (a home, money, the power to do business in her husband’s name, the respect offered to her by strangers in recognition of his status) but Enchi makes it very clear that Tomo remains celibate, and horribly lonely, for almost forty years once Yukitomo has tired of her physically. And she has no right to want anything for herself. None. That the women are offered this choice between two equally miserable fates is, I believe, Enchi’s point. The entire system is inherently flawed.
To add to her worries, Tomo has the thankless job of working frantically behind the scenes to ensure the family name (which is only hers through marriage, yet the only name that will ever be associated with her and therefore vitally important) is never blemished by Yukitomo’s indecent behavior.
The Waiting Years ends dramatically with Tomo asserting herself for the first and last time. But I won’t say more. Think bittersweet revenge. Think soul-crumbling revelation. Very satisfying.
I mentioned in my first post about The Waiting Years that the Japanese title of this novel is 女坂 (Onna zaka) which literally means the woman’s slope. Traditionally, Japanese temples had a men’s path and a women’s path, the second a supposedly gentler, easier walk. Enchi seems to be using this title ironically, because Tomo’s “path” is anything but easy. This title (and the beautiful scene symbolizing it when Tomo struggles up a hill in the snow one evening to get back home) turns the whole concept of 家 (ie – home, household) upside down by suggesting that a woman’s work inside the home is just as dangerous and difficult as a man’s.
One of the book’s other ironies is that we rarely see Yukitomo outside the home, unless he’s taken one of his mistresses on some cultural expedition. Tomo on the other hand is often running left and right, arranging financial matters and keeping busy with tradesman to insure the house has all that it needs. Yukitomo’s “life” is focused almost exclusively on his sexual needs and Tomo’s on a denial of that same sexuality. That this might be a hidden meaning behind the concept of 家and one which destroys its other more positive associations, is a fascinating notion.
Enchi wrote seven novels in total, all of which have been translated I believe.