The Siren’s Lament: Essential Stories  by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki

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Translated by Bryan Karetnyk

Review by Karen Langley

Jun’ichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) was a Japanese author known for his erotically charged stories, and is considered one of his country’s best-known modern authors. His most acclaimed works are perhaps The Makioka Sisters, Some Prefer Nettles, The Key, and his non-fiction book In Praise of Shadows. During his lifetime he won a number of awards, and in 1964 was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for Literature; his works continue to be highly popular. Now, Pushkin Press have included him in their range of ‘Essential Stories’ collections, an imprint which has featured such disparate authors as Gertrude Stein, Isaac Babel and George Orwell, to name just a few! The Siren’s Lament is particularly interesting, however, as it features three of his early works, two of which have never been translated before. 

Intriguingly, the two shorter pieces, The Quilin and the title story, are set in China; however, the centrepiece which they bookend, the novella Killing O-Tsuya, is located in Japan. All translated by Bryan Karetnyk, they make fascinating and memorable reading, as well as giving a welcome look at Tanizaki’s early stories.

The opening story, The Quilin, looks back to the time of the sage Confucius; the great thinker is travelling through ancient China, spreading the word, and he arrives in the state of Wei where an oppressed people are being ruled by a feeble duke who’s totally manipulated by his fickle and wicked wife. Beautiful and powerful, she is a formidable force for Confucius to face and his wisdom may well be no match for her evil desires.

The Siren’s Lament is again concerned with a dissolute ruler, in this case a young prince from a more recent era of China’s history; and a man who has exhausted every vice and pleasure possible to him. It seems there is nothing left in the world which can bring him joy and satisfaction, until a travelling merchant turns up with a strange cargo to offer the prince…

Sandwiched between these two evocative and often poignant tales is the novella, Killing O-Tsuya. This story is firmly set in Japan and tells of the fatal relationship between young Shinsuke and O-Tsuya, the daughter of his employer. The two are mismatched by class yet irresistibly attracted, so are persuaded to run away together. Here they fall into the clutches of those with darker designs; and the more worldly, and impossibly beautiful, O-Tsuya may have different ideas as to how they should spend their life than the very naïve Shinsuke. The pair’s descent into vice and degradation is inevitable, but tragic, and of course the ending is signposted from the very start.

All three of these stories are wonderfully atmospheric and evocatively written. Particularly in Killing, Tanizaki conjures his setting, here the city of Tokyo in the days when it was known as Edo. The back streets, the dangerous corners, the pleasure areas of the city where the brothels and taverns are situated, all spring to life from his pen; and in sequences where characters are fleeing through the rainy streets, it’s hard not feel as you’re travelling with them.

I, too, have killed once or twice in my time, and let me tell you: once you’ve developed a taste for it, it isn’t easy to stop! You used to be a shy little thing, but that’s certainly not the case any more. And when you have nothing left to fear in the world, everything becomes possible…

What’s particularly noticeable is that central to all of these stories, and in fact the driving force, is a powerful and often evil female character. Tanizaki doesn’t pull his punches – there is sex and violence a-plenty (although never too graphic), and in each story powerful women are driven by desire, both for physical pleasure and for riches. The men are portrayed as very weak-willed, easily tricked by the women, and ultimately in thrall to them (usually because of their physical needs). They’re fooled over and over again, with murder coming to the fore particularly in Killing. Tanizaki certainly seems to be making the point that anyone can be corrupted if the temptations are strong enough, and it’s very easy to get drawn into wicked ways before you realise it.

The stories collected in this volume are certainly deserving of the description Essential; as early explorations of themes that Tanizaki would return to in later work, they’re important works to help with understanding of his art. But as well as that, they’re wonderful tales in their own right, full of excitement and tension, which transport you in time and space to past worlds where characters in search of pleasure are happy to transgress the norms. It’s pleasing, as well, that two of the stories haven’t been translated into English before and that Pushkin aren’t just reprinting in this series previously available works, and Karetnyk brings his formidable translating talents to work here with excellent results.

The Siren’s Lament would act as an excellent introduction to Tanizaki’s writing, but is also essential for any fan of his work. Lyrical, dramatic and unforgettable, his explorations of the darker sides of human nature and desire are still relevant today; and this collection is a welcome addition to the list of his titles available in English. Highly recommended!

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and would love to visit old Japan – just not the seamier side… (www.kaggsysbookishramblings.wordpress.com)

Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, The Siren’s Lament: Essential Stories (Pushkin Press, 2023). 978-1782278092. 192pp, paperback.

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