Booked Out: Reading the first ever novel 'The Tale Of Genji'

  • Books
  • Sunday, 03 Feb 2019

Get the Sunday Star newspaper today (Feb 3) for a 20% discount coupon on The Tale Of Genji when you buy the book at Kinokuniya Bookstores at Suria KLCC. Look for the coupon in Star2.

Having decided to spend this year expanding my reading tastes to more diverse books, the question that needed to be answered was this: What book to begin with?

If the intention is to move away from books written by white men from the West, then perhaps The Tale Of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu was about as far as I could get – a book written by a woman from the East (in this case, Japan), in the early years of the 11th century.

The Tale Of Genji is one of those books that I’d heard about many times over the years and yet never got around to reading. It is possibly best-known for being one of the oldest – some even say the oldest – novels ever written.

(The image above is a woodblock print by 19th century artist Utagawa Hiroshige from the series Tale Of Genji In Fifty-four Chapters. The image shows Utsusemi, the first woman whom Genji courts.)

Tale Of Genji stands the test of time, says Booked Out columnistThe book tells the story of Genji, who is the son of an Heian-era Japanese emperor and the emperor’s favourite concubine. And it is a sprawling tale that is both startlingly modern in its psychology and very much of its time when it comes to gender and sexual politics.

Genji’s mother dies when he’s a toddler, and the emperor, unable to get over the loss, marries a woman named Fujitsubo who resembles her. Genji grows up loving her as his stepmother, but in adulthood, they fall in love with each other. This illicit and impossible relationship drives him to seek out a series of affairs with other women, many of which eventually fail.

The most striking – and disturbing from today’s lens – of these, is Murasaki, a 10-year-old girl who catches Genji’s attention, and who, he discovers, is Fujitsubo’s niece. He kidnaps Murasaki and keeps her in his palace, raising and moulding her in Fujitsubo’s image to be his ideal woman.

This is only the basics of the story; Genji is a sizeable book that is divided into six parts, and it traces the lives of a huge cast of characters (a few hundred!) over several decades. And it is poetic and metaphorical, sometimes comedic, and often unexpectedly raunchy. But it is also an absolutely fascinating insight into a period of history that I haven’t read about elsewhere, and how the mores of that era shape ideas of morality and (in)equality.

Viewed from today’s point of view, much of Genji’s behaviour is despicable, yet the novel treats them almost as a matter of course. Terms like Freudian and Proustian are often used to describe Genji, but the novel of course predates both these descriptions by centuries, and one can’t help but be struck by how ahead of its time it feels.

And the story behind the book is almost as interesting as the book itself.

Murasaki Shikibu or Lady Murasaki (her real name is not known), was a poet and lady-in-waiting at the Japanese imperial court in the 1000s. In the Heian period, women were generally not taught to learn Chinese – the official written language in Japan at the time – but Lady Murasaki picked it up thanks to a great interest in Chinese literature.

She was married and had a daughter, but lost her husband soon after they were married. It is thought that she started writing around this time, and her renown as a writer got her an invitation to serve the empress as lady-in-waiting. And while it is widely thought that Lady Murasaki began writing Genji before joining the Imperial court, she continued working on it, drawing on her experiences there to bring to life vivid accounts of aristocratic life in the Heian era.

The knowledge of Lady Murasaki’s real life and achievements – which continue to be lauded today the world over – provides a stark counterpoint to the women in the novel, who often seem like passive vehicles for Genji’s journey, and whom he both desires and discards at will. And it isn’t difficult to imagine that this was what most women’s lives were like then.

Yet, Genji was written by a woman; and by most accounts, for women too – Lady Murasaki is thought to have written the novel in instilments for the other aristocratic ladies of the court. And despite originating in a period when women were considered not intelligent enough to be worth educating, Lady Murasaki’s novel has become the defining work of that era.

Centuries later, it has cemented her as not just one of the most important writers in Japan, but as a forerunner of literature the world over. There is something so powerfully subversive about that.

Sharmilla Ganesan is radio presenter/producer and culture writer. She is currently reading her way through the titles in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Join the conversation at or Tweet @SharmillaG.

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