Reading Genji in Tehran

Murasaki's legs

Murasaki's legs

A couple of weeks ago, Sheen and I commenced our Genji-Yomu, reading this milestone in world literature, the world’s first novel, in synchrony with various Nippophiles around the world. (Hey, you with the dirty mind, that means “lover of all things Japanese” and has nothing to do with any part of the human anatomy, OK?) One of our fellow readers is a girl called Zhaleh, who lives in Tehran, Iran, and her comments have been the high spot of our undertaking so far.


Endowed with typically admirable Muslim modesty, Zhaleh has preferred not to post her observations in the “comments” box in our blog, but I feel that her insights are so acute, and the way she expresses herself is so refined, that I would like to take this opportunity to share some of her remarks with you.


I agree with her when she says that Genji’s behaviour would be considered pretty outrageous today, whether he lived in Japan, Iran or anywhere else. OK, he gets away with his philandering because he’s cool, dashing and can quote obscure poetry, but he’s basically an elitist, priapic hedonist. His finest trophy so far has been a ten-year-old girl; I’m only up to Chapter 12 so there’s plenty of time for him to have even more dubious affairs. Zhaleh, however, sees Genji’s relationship with young Murasaki in a different light. She reckons that what Genji feels for his young mistress is a kind of love which is considered disgusting and unacceptable in the West but which can be understood in the context of traditional Persian society – a love which is more aesthetic than erotic, more to do with caring and concern than with passion, and in which age and gender are immaterial. Apparently this kind of relationship is often described in classical Arab literature, too, and I can imagine the ancient Greeks finding it perfectly normal. Genji sleeps with Murasaki, but in a way completely unlike the way he sleeps with the rest of his women. It’s only when Murasaki reaches puberty that Genji begins to look at her in a different way and, as I say, we’re only up to Chapter 12 (“Suma”) so I don’t know what’s going to happen but fear not, I’ll keep you posted.


It turns out that Zhaleh (what a fantastic name, by the way) is a veritable bookworm. Her favourite authors are Roa Bastos, Pamuk and Joyce. I had to ask her if she had read “Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi and she answered in the affirmative.


According to Zhaleh, “about half” young Tehrani females share the same concerns and opinions as the students who inhabit Nafisi’s book (which is almost a novel but more like a long essay), girls who crave Western-style “liberation”. A fair number are deeply religious and conservative, and others are not particularly bothered on way or the other. I asked Zhaleh which group she would put herself in, and I could almost see her wry smirk in her reply: “In the morning, I am the pro-Western feminist; in the afternoon, I am the dutiful devout Muslim woman; at night I watch soap operas on the TV and forget everything.”


She asked me if I saw any similarity between Genji’s relationship with Murasaki and Humbert’s relationship with Lolita. Superficially, yes, there are is a clear similarity in the sense that an older man “takes possession” of a girl to do with her as he pleases, though Genji’s idea and purpose of possession is obviously different from Humbert’s. I could never work out Lolita’s character – blasé, snappy and flirtatious? – but she seems more complicated than Murasaki.


Is Genji as depraved as HH? Even by the conventions of his own time, the young prince’s behaviour is frowned upon, perhaps considered shocking, but the reader knows he’s got a heart of gold. Humbert, on the other hand, has no such redeemable features. Genji wouldn’t look twice at Lolita, and Humbert wouldn’t waste his time on Murasaki.


However, there is a curious parallel between Murasaki’s father, Hyoobukyo no Miya, and Lolita’s mother, Mrs Haze, in that they both oppose but tolerate their offspring’s involvement with Genji and Humbert, respectively. They both pretend not to be aware; they grieve but feel impotent when confronted with Genji’s and HH’s savoir faire.


Which of the two men is more Persian? I asked Zhaleh. If you substitute piety for literary knowledge, Humbert, she answered. And it’s true that both Genji and Humbert love to show off their extensive reading.


Would you rather be Murasaki or Lolita? I asked her. “I see myself as the Anna Karenina type”, she replied, before asking me if I would prefer to be Humbert or Genji. I told her I saw myself as the Tom Joad type, which she refuted at length and probably rightly so.


So there you go. We will continue reading The Tale of Genji and find out what happens when Murasaki is old enough to see what her handsome prince is up to.


A word about the musical accompaniment: Soraya has proved to be completely useless in her capacity as a maiko. She can’t play the shamisen to save her life. I’ve found that an excellent background soundtrack is Debussy’s “La mer” and as it lasts about 25 minutes, it’s perfect for a chapter or so of Genji. The link between this book and this music could be traced thus: Genji –> Hiroshige –> Van Gogh -> Debussy. Tenuous but what the hell.






One response to this post.

  1. Posted by sand witch on February 27, 2009 at 1:44 pm

    You guys read my mind. Nabokov must have read Genji. Nafisi should read you!


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