The first book for my Japanese Literature Challenge 12, which I read back in January, is Masks by Enchi Fumiko, one of the most important Japanese writers of the 20th century. Originally written in 1958 and translated to English in 1983 by Juliet Winters Carpenter, Masks is a hauntingly fascinating novel which masterfully combines an intricate plot with Japanese cultural elements.
The book is separated into three parts, each one named after a different theatre Noh mask. As it is explained in the novel itself, each Noh mask portrays a specific emotion and symbolises something different, so the naming of each chapter after the specific mask was everything but arbitrary, too.
The story begins by introducing us to Ibuki, a literature professor, and Mikame, a doctor, who stumble upon one another in a coffee shop in Kyoto. As they catch up, they talk about Yasuko, a recently widowed woman in which both men seem to be interested. Yasuko lives with her mother-in-law, Mieko, who used to be a famous poet and who also appears to control Yasuko’s life in a more complicated way than the two men initially imagine.
Although I want to go into much more detail regarding the plot of this novel, I’m afraid anything more will definitely lead to spoilers. The way the lives of those four characters get tangled up is truly marvelous and the plot thickens more and more as the story progresses, yet without the reader really realising so until the last couple of pages.
Apart from occasional mentions to the Noh theatre, the story is imbued with references to The Tale of Genji, one of the most famous pieces of classic Japanese literature, as the story of the Lady Rokujo (one of the characters in this epic) is not only mentioned by the characters, but certain allusions to the incidents that take place in Masks can also be drawn. Enchi’s influence by the grand epic is apparent if one considers the fact that she had translated it into modern Japanese – a rather daunting and time-consuming task given The Tale‘s length.
Enchi’s writing and the beliefs she has instilled in her characters might be considered conservative or outdated for the modern reader, but I have to admit I found this novel rather refreshing to read – perhaps because I had only read novels by Japanese men written during that period or perhaps Enchi’s writing actually resonated with me more deeply than I initially thought it would.
Masks is a tale of deception, revenge and punishment. It is a tale that will whisk the readers away, thoroughly transporting them to its era (even if they aren’t really familiar with all the cultural references), tangling them up into an invisible thread that will start desolving only after they have reached the very last page.