Six courses of Tanizaki
The world of Tanizaki Junichiro is a disturbing place. The author of such classics of Japanese literature as Seven Japanese Tales, Naomi: A Novel (which created the idea of the “modern girl” in Japan) and The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi and Arrowroot, Tanizaki explores the extremes of fetishism and body horror, of the dark corners of everyone’s minds where in fantasy things are carried too far and the most despicable of pleasures are satisfied.
At the same time, Tanizaki is the absolute master of the tease. More than any other author I know of, Tanizaki can bring you to the very edge of desire, then suddenly back away leaving you feeling deliciously frustrated. As sexual as his work is in nature, there is almost no actual sex in his stories. Tanizaki will have his female character naked and bound, helpless on the floor of an abandoned warehouse to which she is kidnapped, and when the protagonist slowly approaches the woman, and every dark impulse in your psyche is screaming out “rape her! rape her!” the male attacker will instead produce a clump of overripe strawberries that he suddenly squishes over the woman’s face. His work leaves you lying exposed, ashamed of your own dark impulses and frustrated at the lack of climax. They are, in short, exquisite.
This collection, “The Gourmet Club,” brings together six of Tanizaki’s tales (a sextet no less!), spanning his lengthy career from 1911 (“The Children,” “The Secret”), only a year after he made his literary debut, all the way to 1955 (“Manganese Dioxide Dreams”) which was published ten years before his death. The style ranges between the stories, with some, like “The Two Acolytes” being an uncharacteristic Buddhist morality play to others like the titular “The Gourmet Club” which satisfies all appetites.
All of the tales here have their own particular flavor of obsession. “The Children” focuses on four children and the games they play when no adults are looking. “Mr. Bluemond” talks of living in the public eye, when a director is forced to confront his actress wife’s most devoted fan, and wonders just how much of her he has sold. “The Secret” is about the love of the taboo, and how the thrill disappears when secrets are revealed. “The Gourmet Club” is a classic tale of one of my favorite deadly sins, and how the lust for flavors can be every bit as overwhelming as the lust for flesh.
With each story, Tanizaki strings you along, dangling pieces in front of you and then pulling them away. I was surprised at the ending of every story, as Tanizaki never serves exactly what he appears to offer on the menu.
Special note must be paid to translators Anthony Chambers and Paul McCarthy. They each took turns translating the stories, and they were smooth enough that I can not tell the difference between them. All of the stories are pure Tanizaki. Chambers is a translator I am familiar with, having translated “The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi and Arrowroot” as well as doing a beautiful job with the almost-untranslatable Tales of Moonlight and Rain. Paul McCarthy was new to me however, and I was impressed with his work.