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The Story of Tomoda and Matsunaga

Junichiro Tanizaki (1886–1965) is considered to be among the greats of modern Japanese literature. The Story of Tomoda and Matsunaga (first published in Japanese in 1926, later in Italian, then in English in 2018 in The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories) is a Tanizaki novella which explores the dichotomy between aspects of Eastern culture (specifically Japanese) and Western culture (specifically European) through the use and eyes of a doppelgänger, a Jekyll and Hyde sort who vacillates in his desires and attitudes toward provincial, traditional Asia and a dissolute, gluttonous Europe.

The narrator, F.K., is a celebrated novelist residing in Tokyo. He receives a letter from Shige Matsunaga, from a rural village in south-central Honshu. Shige's husband, Gisuke, has left her, after having told her he'd be taking a long trip, and he is gone for several years without a word to her. After he returns, he slips back into his role of loving husband and content father. Naturally suspicious of her husband, Shige rifles through his personal effects and finds a postcard addressed to a Ginzo Tomoda. Her husband, years later, again leaves, for years more, and she suspects he's living a double life, as Gisuke and as Ginzo. During Gisuke's second "trip" is when she sends the letter to F.K., hoping the novelist can find out if Ginzo (or "Tom" as he's also known) is in fact her husband. This seems unlikely to F.K., who is Ginzo's drinking companion and sees the man for who he appears to be, a devil-may-care libertine with grand appetites for women and food and drink, not one who'd ever be able to settle down in the sleepy countryside.

A stretch of the book reads like a detective story, along with compelling dialogue, scenes with foreign women in Yokohama's bordellos, and all with exceptional pacing on par with what you'd find in Kafka, building up the mystery and suspense, and at last the reveal, which in this case is delectable (presumably more so for anyone who's thought at length about the oft-illusory boundaries between Japan and the West). Through the narrator, we eventually learn if Gisuke and Ginzo are one or two, and the rich accounts and colorful perspectives that fill the final pages are delivered with intensity, painting an unreliable perspective of the West as wild and the East as prosaic and restrained. The ambivalence of Tanizaki, who apparently was fascinated with Western culture and surely would've chewed on what being Eastern and Western meant, comes through these pages, which are sharply written and gratifying to read.


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