Japanese Title: 女面
Author: Enchi Fumiko (円地文子)
Translator: Juliet Winters Carpenter
Publication Year: 1983 (America); 1958 (Japan)
If there is such a thing as the perfect Japanese novel, Masks is it. First of all, it has been translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, one of the most prolific and eloquent translators of Japanese literature alive today. Carpenter has translated everything from Tawara Machi’s groundbreaking collection of tanka poetry, Salad Anniversary (Sarada Kinenbi 1987) to Asa Nonami’s hard-boiled police thriller The Hunter (Kohoeru Kiba 1996). My advice to all lovers of Japanese literature would be: if Juliet Winters Carpenter has translated it, you need to read it!
As for the author herself, Enchi Fumiko is a well-regarded writer of literary fiction in Japan. Her father was a scholar of classical Japanese literature, and she grew up reading the books in his library. In fact, her given name, Fumiko, means “child of letters” or “child of literature.” When she grew up, she undertook the translation of many of the Japanese classics, including the monumental Heian period romance novel The Tale of Genji. She is famous for incorporating her classical background into her own fiction, which was highly praised by writers like Tanizaki Junichirō and Mishima Yukio.
I myself am a big fan of Enchi’s work because of her tightly-woven yet highly allusive plots and masterful use of symbolism. An Enchi novel is like a structuralist literary critic’s dream come true. There is so much, so much packed within each of her novels and stories, and no single interpretation that can be given to any of them. Enchi is an intellectual author of the highest magnitude, yet also possesses the ability to imbue her fiction with great emotional weight. Not only will Enchi’s novels make you think, but they will also make you laugh in desperation and pump your fist with a sense of well-deserved victory.
Although Enchi is primarily known in Japan for her 1971 novel Onnazaka, for which she won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize (this novel has been translated into English by John Bester under the title “The Waiting Years”), I tend to prefer Masks. Although its title refers to the masks of Noh drama, particularly the “madwoman” masks, which lend their names to the novel’s chapter titles, the novel draws the majority of its themes and allusions from the aforementioned Tale of Genji. The parallels Enchi draws between The Tale of Genji and the world of her novel are numerous and quite interesting. Not only does she draw distinct parallels between her characters and the characters of the Heian romance, but she also makes use of such classic “Genji” themes as spirit possession and substitution to subvert the patriarchal and misogynistic society that holds sway in the worlds of both novels.
Although Masks is primarily narrated from the point of view of a male college professor named Ibuki, who is cast in the role of Genji, its true hero is an older woman named Mieko, a powerful Lady Rokujō-like figure with a painful past and mysterious intentions. As Mieko’s protégée, Yasuko, explains to Ibuki,
“Believe me, she is a woman of far greater complexity than you – or anyone – realize. The secrets inside her mind are like flowers in a garden at nighttime, filling the darkness with perfume. Oh, she has extraordinary charm. Next to that secret charm of hers, her talent as a poet is really only a sort of costume.”
The novel centers around Mieko’s attempt to use this “secret charm” of hers in order to set into motion a deep and complex scheme of revenge, creation, and rebirth. I don’t want to give away the ending, but everything about Mieko and her plan is beautiful, terrible, and thought-provoking. I would say that this novel is perhaps the best introduction to Japanese literature, and more specifically Japanese women’s literature, ever published. If you can find a copy of this novel, buy it! No matter where your literary interests lie, this is a novel you need to read.