"The Tale of Murasaki" by Liza Dalby

A novel about classical Japan's greatest writer, set amid the literary and erotic intrigue of the imperial court.

Published July 12, 2000 6:46PM (EDT)

"The Tale of Genji," the 11th century Japanese literary work considered by many to be the world's first novel, boasts an irresistible hero: a sweet-smelling, sensitive Shining Prince who woos and wins every lady he meets.

Liza Dalby's "The Tale of Murasaki" imagines the life of Genji's creator, Murasaki Shikibu, in a fictional memoir that takes the form of a poetic diary. Dalby, who has written two books of nonfiction, "Kimono" and "Geisha," which recount her experiences as the only Western woman to become a geisha, sets herself a daunting task here: to tell Murasaki's own story through a work of "literary archaeology" that incorporates not only a fragment of the ancient author's actual journal but also hundreds of her "waka," the short, haikulike message poems that seemed to flow as freely as e-mail among those in Murasaki's circle.

As a work of literary archaeology or, more fittingly, anthropology, "The Tale of Murasaki" is a stunning success. The book overflows with rich descriptions of customs, scenery, rituals and nature that evoke a lost world and often rise to the level of art. Yet because she sticks so closely to her literary and historical sources, Dalby never quite manages to make the imaginative leap needed to bridge the gap between first-rate social science and compelling fiction.

As the story begins, Murasaki's mother has just died, and, before long, Murasaki is running the household of her father, Tametoki, a poet and scholar of Chinese who has seen to it that his daughter is similarly well-educated -- a trait that puts her at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to attracting suitors.

Murasaki doesn't seem to mind this; in fact, as a young woman she is repelled by men, and seems content to embark on a series of intimate relationships with close female friends. While Murasaki resists her father's attempts to find her a husband, she and her friend Chifuru begin making up stories about a dashing dream lover whose passion and poetry stand in sharp contrast to the dull, arranged marriages that await them. In "Night of the Hazy Moon," Murasaki's first tale, she writes, "Even in the crowd of elegant courtiers, Genji stood out. At 18 his boyish handsomeness was charming, his clothing impeccable, but it was his quietly confident attitude that drew people to him."

Before long, Genji takes on a life of his own, and his adventures, originally set down in a series of letters, slowly make their way into the wider world, where they are devoured by an ever-growing audience. After her first love affair with a man ends, Murasaki dutifully acquiesces to her father's choice of husband -- a match that works out surprisingly well and results in the birth of her daughter, Katako. Ultimately, Murasaki's literary prowess wins her a much-coveted position at court, where she is initially dazzled by but soon becomes disenchanted with the gossip, petty politics and sexual peccadilloes of the imperial circle, and discovers, sadly, that the real is far less compelling than her romantic ideal.

A great deal happens to Dalby's characters, including rape, suicide, smallpox, death in childbirth and all manner of heartbreak. Yet, to paraphrase President Clinton, who may fancy himself a Genji for our time, we never really feel their pain. Part of the problem is that there are just too many of them. Dozens of major and minor historical figures glide stiffly through these pages -- so many, in fact, that the author thoughtfully provides a handy glossary of names right upfront. Without it, the reader might well be lost.

There are pleasures to be had along the way. Dalby does a fine job of depicting odd but fascinating practices such as teeth darkening, in which fashionable ladies mixed iron filings and sake to achieve an alluring, black-as-night smile, and her descriptions of the many-layered gowns, whose color combinations have names like "Flowering Iris," are often breathtaking. Devotees of poetry slams will probably also enjoy Dalby's accounts of their ancient precursors; in "The Tale of Murasaki," a character's way with waka often helps determine his fate in love and his place at court.

For all its charms, however, reading this novel is a bit like visiting a museum where the exhibits are encased behind thick layers of glass. When the story is over, you come away having learned a great deal, but feeling little.

By Patricia Kean

Patricia Keans has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lingua Franca and other publications.

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