In the original dustsheet. Black cloth binding with silver title on the spine.
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Who is Sei Shonagon? The tenth-century author of The Pillow Book? A woman of mixed-race parentage, surviving life in modern Japan? Or a voice from behind a screen, reaching across centuries, linking them both?
Just off a fashionable street in the upbeat heart of contemporary Tokyo, lies a fragment of another age – an old incense shop. Above it, in a room furnished with nothing but a simple paper screen, guests come to speak with the woman known as ‘Sei Shonagon’, hoping to find answers to the mysteries of their own bizarre lives. ‘Sei Shonagon’ seeks out beauty where she can find it – whether in her memories, or in traditional Japanese culture. As she grows older, the need to understand what she sees around her becomes a personal odyssey that affects the lives of everyone she encounters.
Review: The narrator – it is characteristic of this enigmatic novel that we never know her real name – is a woman whose father was American and whose mother was Japanese. She was born in the United States, but when she was seven years old, her father died and her mother took her back to Tokyo with her; and that was a great culture shock for the child. They lived with the mother’s brother, a harsh, deeply conservative and spartan Japanese, very controlling of his sister and now of his little niece. She is reproached for being only half-Japanese, has to learn not to ask questions, to speak more quietly, and is expected to learn everything about his own passion, the history of Japanese swords and of the samurai tradition. The little girl found some solace in writing down stories about her life in America. She read these to her unhappy mother, who called her `my little Sei Shonagon’ after a woman at the imperial court in the 10th century, who recorded her life and her reflections in `the Pillow Book’. So here we have the record of the narrator’s Japanese life. We live with her at first in her uncle’s austere house where rooms are separated only by thin paper screens. Later she somehow inherits an incense shop. Above it there is also such a room. We are not told how it came about that a variety of men come to talk to her in that room. She is separated from them by a screen, such as in the 10th century would have separated Sei Shonagon from the men she had entertained. But she is not entertaining them: she is more like a priest in a confessional box or a Freudian analyst sitting out of sight of the patient. Through what the men tell her, we catch further glimpses of Japanese life: the huge pressures on life in modern Tokyo, rushed and ugly, overcrowded on pavements and transport, where compulsive shopping and electronic games are a kind of safety valve, and where garish colours of goods, advertisements and modern art are such a contrast to the subtler colours of classical Japanese painting. Indeed Tokyo is contrasted – save for the expected submission of women – with the old traditional Japan which can still be found in the countryside. And sometimes the men come to her for stories of old Japan. If they want to know more about her than the stories, she heads them off. Until …
The Australian-born author, we are told, has spent two years in Tokyo, and I assume the culture shock must have been hers also. She would have grappled with the contrast between the ugly and the graceful side of Japan. There are musings on the standard subjects of calligraphy, of paper, of carp, of gardens, of cherry blossom, of jade. But in the end she probably found Japanese society as alienating as Amélie Nothomb found it in Fear and Trembling (see my review) or Gavin Kramer in Shopping. This book is more artistic and more poetic than either of these, but is also more fragmented and in some respects elusive.
Born in Australia, Jan Blensdorf has lived and worked abroad for many years, and is now based in England. My Name is Sei Shonagon grew out of two years she spent in Tokyo. This is her first novel.
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