I have long believed Tanizaki Jun’ichirô (1886-1965) to be the greatest 20th-century Japanese writer and the one who should have been the first Japanese writer to receive the Nobel Prize for literature (he was dead by the time Kawabata did in 1968). I was having qualms about his limits before the new batch of translations into English of work from the teens and twenties of the previous century appeared. Tanizaki’s foot fetishism is not prominent in them, though present in his 1925 “Red Roofs.” There is no hint of it in what feels like a very long novel that was serialized in Tokyo and Osaka in 1928, Kokubayaku, which has recently been published in English as In Black and White (the Japanese title is a homonym for “Confession”). The English text of the novel only runs 216 pages, but so little happens that it feels much longer.
As in the stories that appeared in English collections of 2016 and 2017 (Red Roof & Other Stories translated by Anthony Chambers and Paul McCarthy was published by the University of Michigan Press, Devils in Daylight by J. Keith Vincent, was published by New Directions), the protagonist — definitely not a hero or even a likeable character — Mizuno, is a writer. He is quite an unsociable one with no friends. His wife left him after he wrote a series of stories involving murders of wives.
He is classified as a “diabolist,” and the new story, which is late for delivery to a magazine called The People that pays more than other magazines, again focuses on premeditated murder. Its protagonist (yet another writer) seeks to commit “the perfect crime,” that is to get away with murder. The writer of the story within a story has no animus against a less-successful writer, whom he calls Codama. Lack of motivation is part of the reason he expects to escape detection: the murder is a gratuitous act.
In the rush to get “To the Point of Murder” into print, Muzuno slips several times and uses the name of the model for the man being murdered, Cojima instead of Codama. Muzuno is very concerned that Cojima and/or others will notice that unusual name, but cannot get it changed before the magazine is printed.
Then Muzuno is in a prolonged panic that the real Cojima will be murdered in a way like in his story and that he will be blamed for it. Muzuno is paranoid and could hardly have made more of a mess of establishing an alibi for the night of the new moon when he fears that life will imitate art and Cojima will be murdered. There must have been many, many better ways to establish alibis!
Muzuno’s fears are realized, and he is suspected of having murdered Cojima in the way his alter ego does in his story (which establishes premeditation). Could there be a “Shadow Man” going to the extraordinary lengths of murdering Cojima and spiriting away Muzun’s alibi? I don’t think so, but Muzuno does and tries to pin the fictional murder on someone he cannot identify (who also lacking motivation for the murder and conspiracy to make it appear Muzuno committed it).
My ability to suspend disbelief cannot overcome the obstacles of Tanizaki’s novel, neither the frame nor the stories within the story. The police misconduct, on the other hand, is easy for me to believe.
(Tanizaki in 1908)
From translator Phyllis Lyon’s afterword, I learned that the novel followed an extended debate in print between Tanizaki defending the necessity of plots in novels, and Akutagawa Riyûnosuke (best known in English as the author of two stories that Kurosawa Akira based his international breakthrough film “Rashômon” on) maintaining that lyricism was enough, that how a story was told was more important than its content (plot). Akutagawa closed out the controversy by committing suicide on Tanizaki’s birthday (24 July) in 1927, so Tanizaki felt some guilt about having (symbolically) killed another writer. This is pretty outlandish, and Akutagawa was terrified that he had inherited his mother’s insanity, but one can see reasons for Tanizaki to have been shaken and to be influenced by that in writing about a writer killing another writer.
(Akutagawa in 1927)
There is a surfeit of reflection on the probity of writers and the “truth” of literature in In Black and White, a carryover from his jousts with Akutagawa (who was six years younger than Tanizaki; he seems more remote since Tanizaki outlived him be decades and produced many novels and novellas after Akutagawa’s death). In the novel, like Tanizaki, Muzuno is turning 40 and Cojima was 35, as Akutagawa was when he was sparring in print with Tanizaki.
As in other early Tanizaki fiction, here is a willful semi-modern woman, a femme fatale, in In the Black and White. The prostitute who said she had lived with a husband two years in Hamburg does not tell Muzuno her name—he refers to her as “Frâulein Hindenburg” (Paul von Hindenburg was chancellor of German at the time (1925-34), but addresses her only as “you.” His contracting her for two sessions a week is folly, not even motivated by lust (I don’t think they copulate during their few meetings). She has an aura of perversity and some cunning, whereas he is just a sad-sack painting himself into a corner.
I find In the Black and White less interesting than the other two novels Tanizaki started writing in 1928, Quicksand and Some Prefer Nettles, and don’t think that exhuming Kokubayaku, was necessary, even for (especially for?) Anglophone Tanizaki aficionados. I found the last part more interesting than the earlier parts, but it seems rushed, with no real ending. The way of telling it, with lots of dialog and lots of paranoid premonitions, did not appeal to me and the plots, as I’ve said, are not credible (as possible human conduct) to me. Though finding them also highly contrived, I prefer Naomi, Devils in Daylight, “The Magician, and, especially, “Red Roofs” among Tanizaki’s fiction before Some Prefer Nettles… and I am more indebted to Lyons for The Saga of Dazai Osamu, (1985), than for this endeavor, though I’d readily stipulate that her afterword is definitely essential for readers in English of In Black and White.
© 2018, Stephen O. Murray