The Tale of Genji, written just over a thousand years ago, has been called the world’s “oldest modern novel.” The work is attributed to Murasaki Shikibu (or Lady Murasaki), a noblewoman from the late 10th to early 11th century who was lady-in-waiting to an imperial consort from around 1006. But of the monumental work’s 54 chapters, the final ten are sufficiently different in content and spirit to have long given rise to speculation about separate authorship: the hero of the earlier chapters, Hikaru Genji (“Shining Genji”), has died; the action, centering on his descendants, has moved from the capital (modern-day Kyoto) to the village of Uji to the south; and the narrative is of a notably different tone throughout. Taking his cue from this speculation, author Hideo Furukawa has written a novel in which Murasaki Shikibu comes back as a vengeful spirit and personally declares the Uji chapters in circulation to be forgeries, then begins reciting what she claims is her own correct version of the tale told in those chapters.
The framing story is set late in the Heian period (894?1185), more than a century after Murasaki Shikibu’s death. As the story begins, three women and two men are gathered in a room in a noblewoman’s mansion. The 21-year-old mistress of the house, Shion, is ill in bed, and her lover, Tateakira, a middle captain in the Imperial Bodyguards, has come to visit her. With them are Chidori, Shion’s first lady-in-waiting, and the serving girl Usuki, daughter of Shion’s wet nurse. A Buddhist priest is also present, and begins an exorcism of the malign spirit that is believed to have possessed Shion, with Usuki to act as the medium. The spirit summoned forth turns out to be that of Murasaki Shikibu, roiling in anger over the corruption of her work. Speaking through Usuki, she begins reciting a new Uji chapter. When finished, she demands that it be immediately bound into a book; do that, she says, and she will return to narrate another chapter, one each night. Then she is gone.
The tale she tells is one of tragic love that is grounded in the original Uji chapters but expands to take in much more from the historical circumstances of the age, in which power within the imperial court was split between reigning and retired emperors while the warrior class emerged as a force to be reckoned with. Enriched by access to gold and having discovered new swordmaking techniques, powers in the distant northeast bide their time with their eyes on developments in the capital. Far to the west, a strange god-like figure has brought pirate groups together into a unified force under his control. Aboriginal Ainu men of mixed blood, descended from a group trapped on an isolated island where they interbred with foreigners, have been trained as assassins . . . Layer upon layer is added to the story as the narrative unfolds.
The summoning of the spirit is in fact nothing more than a performance scripted and directed by Shion. Capitalizing on Chidori’s literary talents and Usuki’s storytelling skills, she hoped to produce a book that would become the talk of the court and enhance her lover’s power, and she had even betrayed the middle captain in carrying out her plan. But that plan is in turn betrayed as well. To Shion’s astonishment, the spirit of Murasaki Shikibu declares that she will become two, and then a third joins them as well, and soon the new “Tale of Uji” has split into three different versions, each of which takes on a life of its own. The stories told by the multiple Murasaki Shikibus gradually converge on and merge with reality, as Shion “in real life” becomes possessed by one of the fictional heroines.
Author Hideo Furukawa’s seemingly boundless imagination reaches new heights in this brilliantly conceived tour de force, which must surely be regarded as his most important work to date.
(An English excerpt of the work appears in Monkey Business, Volume 5, 2015.)