In his richly aesthetic—and occasionally abstract—book Silhouettes (Siluetas in Spanish), Borges scholar Luis Chitarroni (Argentina) introduces readers to a series of literary and historical figures—some of whom lived in the flesh and skirted the paper-thin edge between art and life (as when Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, his wife Chiyo, and his literary colleague Haruo Satō rewrite their destinies), others who existed in the imagination or through pseudonyms or heteronyms (as when Herbert Quain, Ricardo Reis, Miguel Torga pen alternative universes for themselves in a different “silhouette” from Luis Chitarroni’s series). Though Luis himself refers to the works in this collection, which grew out of a collaboration with the magazine Babel in the 1990s, as “timid tales” and “narrative exercises,” Chitarroni’s “silhouettes” are masterfully written—if often light-hearted, sarcastic, and witty—and far from timorous, with the author transforming cardboard outlines into vivid characters. If Jun’ichirō Tanizaki takes readers through “extraordinary trials” and creates “an immeasurably vast difference between his texts and his audience,” as Chitarroni suggests, then Luis himself closes this fissure by introducing us to literary secrets that span decades, if not centuries. Author of seven books of fiction or literary criticism, in the silhouette from Japan via Argentina included in this issue of The Decadent Review, Mr. Chitarroni marries (at times literally) the aesthetics of poetry, painting, paper, and psychology—transporting the reader to a Japan of a century ago, and bringing us perhaps unexpected conclusions about aesthetics and “collaborations” literary and otherwise.
One night in 1930, after a meal dished up with copious servings of Gorgonzola and plentiful glasses of Portuguese wine, the Japanese writer Jun’ichirō Tanizaki and his friend, poet and novelist Haruo Satō, were chatting about the latest Hollywood movies—a theme that invited virtually no call for surprise. The musicians had retired for the evening, and Chiyo, Tanizaki’s wife—who had paused before the phonograph—was posing for an invisible painter. Displayed on the wall was a panel depicting the sacrifices of an exquisite and lethal fish that chooses its own victims. Suddenly Tanizaki asked his friend: “Would you like to marry Chiyo?” Up to that point, the night had been relaxed, entertaining. There was something in the air, something that resembled music; though, perhaps this atmosphere was stirred instead by the absence of music . . . Haruo Satō’s answer was heard. Heard by whom? By how many? By what people? The world the three of them shared, nonetheless, was stripped of enigmas. The scenes that follow, and about which we may only speculate, due to an absence of witnesses, may be played in fast forward: Tanizaki talks with Chiyo; Chiyo and Tanizaki divorce; Haruo Satō talks with Chiyo; Chiyo and Haruo Satō are married. And the monkeys above make an excruciating racket.
This anecdote serves as proof of something, but—thank heavens—we have no way of knowing what exactly it was that Tanizaki wanted to prove here. This incident aside, as a novelist Tanizaki is certainly capable of making his readers endure extraordinary trials—trials whose evidence and proofs seem to carry the levity of a premonition once we’ve read them. That is, in retrospect they do. But, but, but—returning to Tanizaki . . . It’s not the defamiliarization and distance experienced by the “typical” Western reader, nor the familiarity enjoyed by the “exceptional” Eastern reader that interests him; what interests Tanizaki is creating an immeasurably vast distance between his texts and his audience by forcing sense and meaning to slowly withdraw completely from the novel or story. When a sense of direction returns to the text again, our impatience returns with it. But meanwhile, the novel, or story, has brought about what life or memory so often destroys: it gives a sense of purpose to our endurance and to the passage of time.
In the order that our sense of order dictates: Jun’ichirō Tanizaki was born in 1886 in Tokyo, where his family ran a printing press. He studied literature at the Imperial University, and published a one-act play in 1909. Discreetly observant Western readers of his biographies will often point to the earthquake of 1923—which destroyed large parts of Tokyo and Yokohama—as the driving force behind the writer’s return to Osaka’s more traditional cultural landscape. At the same time, from this nearly sedentary return, critics have drawn conclusions suggesting a sort of resignation or repentance on Tanizaki’s part; they claim his influences up to that point had been North American or European: Poe, Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, Stendhal—and above all Stendhal (whom Tanizaki translated in 1928). Be that as it may, Tanizaki himself wrote in his In Praise of Shadows, a long essay demonstrating how the experiences of sensory perception determine each aesthetic choice, that: “[. . .] Western paper is, to us, no more than something to be used, while the texture of Chinese and Japanese paper gives us a certain feeling of warmth, calm and repose. Even the same color might well be one shade for Western paper and another for our own. Western paper turns away the light, while our paper seems to take it in, to envelop it gently, like the soft surface of a first snowfall. It gives off no sound when crumpled or folded; it is as quiet and pliant to the touch as the leaf of a tree.”1
With the publication of his first successful novel, Naomi (A Fool’s Love), he must have accepted, if not without resignation, the comparisons between his piece and Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. His protagonist is a Japanese man who has adopted Western customs, and feels uncomfortable about both his stature and his skin tone. He has fallen in love with a fellow countrywoman who resembles Mary Pickford. Tenth-century Japanese women liked to blacken their teeth in order to appear more attractive; women of the 20th century—and Tanizaki’s list of heroines is quite impressive—rejected their naturally straight, jet-black hair and turned instead, like Taeko Makioka, to permanent curls. It is indeed curious that this Western invention is revisited again; this time very nearly disguised as a cuento chino or tall tale by a Cuban author, and transformed into an erotic game of strategy (Chapter VIII of José Lezama Lima’s Paradise), since curls are almost a prerequisite for the magic of the hototogisu nightingale—the oblique vessel of a blind woman’s desire in Tanizaki’s “The Story (or Portrait) of Shunkin,”—and surface once more with Kitty and Reynaldo in César Aria’s Argentine Light.
Tanizaki’s life was long and filled with passions, one of which was both premature and everlasting: he loved bunraku or puppet theater. The main “character” in one of his most beloved novels, Some Prefer Nettles (1928), is, in fact, set in this colorful stage where Hisei professes his love to Koharu, a geisha. After 1930, however, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki spent his time producing complicated historical narratives—during this period emerged The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi and Arrowroot, two magnificent stories. Although, more than once, Tanizaki retraced his own steps (even going so far as to parody himself in The Key and The Diary of an Old Madman); from 1940 forward he focused on two projects: translating The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki Shikibu into modern Japanese and the writing in modern Japanese a novel he hoped would rival the work of Lady Murasaki, The Makioka Sisters. In contrast to Ts’ui Pen, who set out to build a labyrinth while writing a novel, and left to the future (though not all futures) a labyrinthine novel; Tanizaki left the world two novels that mutually reflect one another, hallucinating, once more, an illusion of reality: with time represented at its actual size. ∎