Monday, September 10, 2007

The Key

I've been quiet this week. It's because I've been doing nothing but paying veterinary bills. Well, that's not strictly true, of course, but I've been doing nothing interesting and I did have to cart Pyramus off to the vet for his annual FELV vaccine + liver and kidney value check. The good news is that except for the FIV, heart murmur, asthma, and luxating patellas he's totally healthy. Heh.

Went to that monthly book discussion thing that I go to today. We were finishing up the segment on post-war Japanese literature with Junichiro Tanizaki's The Key. Rather bleak book, really. Not that I was expecting it to be cheery.

The story is told through the diaries of a husband and wife in the final months of their marriage. As their sex life takes on new and increasingly risqué/socially inappropriate dimensions, they each suspect that the other is reading their diary. In this way the diaries acquires a double purpose; they are both a form of self-expression and a means of communication. As such, they demonstrate that communication--that act we so love to idealize--is not always desirable or beneficial.

Over the course of the book the wife, a traditional Japanese woman, becomes freer in her actions and more sexually liberated. After a lifetime of repressing her emotions, she begins to face them and take action--if in a fairly passive way--to get what she wants. From a "modern" perspective, this is the sort of thing that one wants to embrace, a woman throwing off the chains of the patriarchy to find herself, etc., etc. Within the context of the book, however, this is impossible. Sexual drive leads to, or stems from, depravity, and when the husband and wife embrace this aspect of their character, they behave in a despicable and manipulative manner. The supposed liberation of the wife can lead only to the destruction of their life together.

This makes the book itself an interesting contradiction. On the one hand, its explicit discussion of sex and desire would certainly have made it scandalous in the Japan of 1956. On the other hand, it seems to me a distinctly conservative book, filled with anxiety about Westernization, which is so often associated with modernization. I wouldn't want to reduce the book to that diametric comparison. It's a complex and confusing and fascinating exploration of a relationship in a state of flux. There is a far greater number of questions than answers in The Key.

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