A twisted tattooist finds the perfect human canvas on which to tattoo a spider. The joke’s on him, of course…
First published in Japanese 1910. Collected in Modern Japanese Short Stories, Tuttle 2019. Read a different translation by Howard Hibbett under the title ‘The Tattooer’ available for PDF download here, or as ‘The Victim’ in the Paris Review here
The writings of Junichiro Tanizaki are exquisite though tinged with perversion and cruelty. His novel ‘The Makioka Sisters’, the story of the decline of an Osaka family at the onset of World War II, is among the great novels of the 20th Century.
Tanizaki’s ‘The Bridge of Dreams’ draws its title and theme from the final chapter of Lady Murasaki’s 11th Century classic ‘The Tale of Genji’, which Tanizaki translated into modern Japanese. The setting, reflecting the author’s nostalgia for ancient Japan, is a traditional Kyoto home called Heron’s Nest. “There were only some eight rooms, including the maids’ room and the smaller entrance hall; but the kitchen was a spacious one big enough for an average restaurant, and there was an artesian well next to the sink.” There is also a pavilion, and a tea-house, and beautiful walkways lined with carved statues and pillars, and the garden itself is idyllic, accessed via an old stone bridge over a stream that may or may not be the subject of an ancient poem, for everything is poetic about this place. Tadasu resides in this nest with his father and mother Chinu, the memory of her bosom still stirring him after all these years. When he is five, his mother dies, and his father marries a woman who is required to take the name Chinu and resemble her in every way possible, including taking the boy to her breast. Later, when Tadasu is in high school, the new Chinu becomes pregnant and bears a child, which the father spirits away immediately to a village, while Tadasu helps relieve Chinu’s milk-heavy breasts … and so it goes, even after the father dies and Tadasu marries the gardener’s daughter. Written in an imaginative style and full of perverse sensuality and ambiguity, this story of maternal obsession told by an unreliable narrator is an enduring work of literature.
First published in 1959. Included in a translation by Howard Hibbett in Seven Japanese Tales, Vintage, 1996
Admittedly, including Tanizaki’s nostalgic essay stretches beyond breaking point any definition of a short story, but the line between memoir and fiction is no longer viable. We don’t need these distinctions in literature, which is ultimately just different ways of exposing the ‘I’. Tanizaki argues that the East is yielding to the West’s obsession with illumination, that we should learn to understand and appreciate shadows rather than seeking their destruction. He equates shadow with mystery and the feminine, and the quest to eradicate shadows with masculine domination. What Tanizaki’s essay shares with the best of fictional narrative is to offer access of a kind to the reality of time.
First published in Japanese in 1933. First English publication, 1977. In Praise of Shadows, Sora Books, 2017