Sun, Mar 02, 2008 - Page 18 News List

[BOOK REVIEW] 'Rivalry' of the steamy and sensitive variety

'Rivalry: A Geisha's Tale,' the first English translation of the classic Japanese novel's full text, is nostalgic and honest about the early 20th-century performers

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

RIVALRY: A GEISHA'S TALE
By Nagai Kafu
Translated by Stephen Snyder
165 pages
Columbia University Press

Much of Asia can still be rightly described as displaying a "massage culture." Sex, nominally disguised as massage, is offered by the attractive but impecunious young to the better-off males in establishments that have, to local eyes, nothing disreputable about them. European men discovered this age-old phenomenon with a sense of disbelief - its equivalents had long been banished, certainly in Anglo-Saxon countries, under the various manifestations of Puritanism. Thailand went on to built a tourism industry on its immemorial leisure-time habits, while in Japan the ancient structures were modified only by the arrival of general affluence. This has led to nostalgia there for the old ways, and in particular a fascination with the lifestyle and traditions of the geishas.

Rivalry: A Geisha's Tale, fresh from Columbia University Press in an English version by Stephen Snyder, is the first ever translation of the full text of the masterpiece of the early 20th century novelist and short-story writer Nagai Kafu. An earlier translation was only of a commercial edition that didn't include long erotic passages added later by the author for a private printing - he knew in advance that they'd be unacceptable to the government censor.

Nagai Kafu is a fascinating figure. Originally an editor of literary magazines specializing in the newly-fashionable French naturalism, he abandoned that work in order to embark on a life investigating Tokyo's erotic underworld. This was partly done, no doubt, for its own sake, but it was also undertaken in a spirit of devotion to the ethos of the old, pre-modern Japan, the traditions of which Kafu felt were in part preserved in the teahouses and theaters around which the geishas and other women of the night circulated.

Rivalry is a wonderful novel, with clearly distinguished characters, a swift narrative style, rich descriptions and incisive analyses of feelings and motives. It's set around 1912, and evokes a capital city already equipped with telephones, newspapers, cigarettes and trams. There are stockbrokers, new sessions of parliament and year-end sales. But still defining the life in the pleasure quarters are the ways of the Edo period which had ended over 40 years before, so that geishas continue to preside over the tea ceremony, dress with astonishing formality, and entertain rich businessmen, initially at least with performances on the shamisen.

Kafu understands perfectly well that differences of money, and hence of power, lie behind the sexual games his characters play. The geishas are contracted to the houses they work out of, and one of their main ambitions is to find a patron who will pay off this debt and set them up in financial independence. But at the same time they are young and sensual beings, falling in love with kabuki actors of their own age even while conducting by no means platonic affairs with their older clients. This is part of the rivalry of the title, and it's the main character's love for a young actor that triggers the fury of her patron, Yoshioka, even though he's by this time become tired of their sexual relationship and is looking around for new pleasure elsewhere.

It's strange that a novel as good as this has remained unpublished in English in its complete form for so long. It's true that for many decades after the extended edition was published in Japan (in 1917) passages from it would not have been permitted in, for instance, the UK. There are by no means disapproving references to oral and anal sex, for example, and the writing in general has an open-mindedness about it that is extremely refreshing. Even so, it has been through Arthur Golden's 1997 bestseller Memoirs of a Geisha - also a novel, though cast as an autobiography - that most modern readers have gotten to know about the geisha traditions. Kafu's older classic, by contrast, will please aesthetes and lovers of genuine literature far more.

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