I read Junichiro Tanizaki's masterpiece The Makioka Sisters back in May, and it's one of the best books I've read all year (I'm already working on my "Best of 2012" lists). Since then, I've been keeping an eye out for more of his work. When I came across Some Prefer Nettles at Half Price Books, I remembered that several people had mentioned it and decided I would try it next.
I said in my review of The Makioka Sisters that I'm sure I missed some (many) of the subtler points in the story, reading it from my American perspective and with only a shallow understanding of Japan's culture and people in the 1930s. With Some Prefer Nettles, I apparently missed the entire point of the novel. On the surface, it is the story of a marriage in its last days. Kaname and Misako live with their ten-year-old son Hiroshi, but their life together is a façade. They had been married only two years when Kaname began to withdraw, physically and emotionally, from his wife. He doesn't hate her, there are no quarrels, he just doesn't want to be married to her. Depressed and lonely, unable to cope with his coldness, Misako eventually found a lover, Aso, whom she visits regularly. Kaname has tacitly approved her affair, as Tanizaki did in a similar situation in his own life. Kaname and Misako have discussed divorce, but neither will act. They are concerned about the effect it will have on their son, but the main reason for their inertia is that neither one will take the lead. Both want to be the one left, not the one leaving.
The book opens on a classic scene of passive-aggressive behavior. Misako's father has invited them to a theatrical performance of classical puppetry. Misako had planned to spend the day with her lover. She does not want to go, she does not want to keep up the pretence of their marriage before her father, she does not want to spend time around his much-younger mistress O-hisa, but she will not say so. Kaname is inclined to go, but even more inclined to maneuver her into going. By the end of the first chapter, it is clear why this couple is considering divorce.
At the theater, Kaname finds himself unexpectedly engrossed in the performance. Before reading this, I knew nothing about Japanese theater puppetry, which involves large puppets manipulated by two or three persons. Misako's father (whose name we never learn; he is referred to as "the old man" throughout the book) has developed a passion for this art. His tastes are antique, full of nostalgia for what he sees as the golden age of Japan, before western and "modern" influences took hold in the mid-1800s. He treats O-hisa like a puppet, dressing her in old-fashioned clothes and insisting that she learn arcane music. Later, Kaname joins them on a short trip to the island of Awaji, home to puppet masters, where performances of the classic stories can last an entire day. After he returns home, he finally takes a decisive step, writing to Misako's father to inform him that the marriage is ending. When the old man learns this, he promises to talk Misako into leaving her lover and remaining in the marriage. The book ends before we learn whether he succeded. Tanizaki apparently preferred ambiguous endings, and this one certainly qualifies.
I read this as a story of a failing marriage, held together mainly by the inertia of the husband and wife. Both want to be freed but both refuse to take the final step. I thought that Kaname's increasing interest in the puppetry was partly simply the novelty. He has an income from a family business but apparently no responsibilities and not much to do. I also thought Kaname was attracted to O-hisa as much as to the puppets, though he is also the regular client of Louise, a Eurasian prostitute, who would like to become his mistress with a house of her own. According to the novel's editor and translator, Edward Seidensticker, Kaname is in fact retreating like the old man into nostalgia for Japan's Golden Age, turning away from the confusion and tumult of the modern world, represented by his marriage and also by Louise. Seidensticker writes,
The real theme of Some Prefer Nettles is the clash between the new and the old, the imported and the domestic. The marital conflict and the cultural conflict are in a very general way coextensive. Misako, the wife, is drawn toward the new and foreign, and Kaname more and more strongly toward the traditional. And yet each is pulled by conflicting forces.I have to admit, I simply did not see that in the story. Perhaps I just lack the right cultural filters. For me this story is a satisfying psychological exploration of a marriage, and an introduction to an aspect of Japanese culture I knew nothing about. It was interesting to read, but to my mind it cannot compare with the richness and complexity of The Makioka Sisters.