This is the recreation of the life of an eleventh century Japanese woman of the imperial court who was also an author. Murasaki wrote what is reckoned to be the world’s first novel, The Life Of Genji, based on the life of a Japanese prince.
Liza Dalby takes us into the inner workings of that long-lost exotic world and transports us to a very different place and culture. The reconstructed life of the real Murasaki draws not only on her original novel, but also on texts such as The Pillow Book, containing jottings by Sei Shonagon of life in court.
This is an enchanting book. It requires a little patience to fully absorb its riches and I found it very helpful to have already read The Tale of Genji (The Shining Prince) written by the real Murasaki. But it is well-worth the effort.
It was a life that is difficult to imagine in terms of its total isolation and privilege. At this time, there were reckoned to be only two types of human being in Japan: Real People and Just People, the latter being the vast majority of inhabitants of those islands who slaved to provide a life of immense luxury and idleness for the Real People. With little to do, courtiers (and the court’s courtesans) spent their time in intrigues, plots against others and sexual exploits. Their lives were shaped by strict rules of conduct, such as only communicating with each other in a fixed form of verse known as the waka, a precursor of haiku.
They had no idea who the Just People were and hardly ever came into contact with them. Nevertheless, Murasaki does manage to get a glance of life in the backwaters of the provinces which offers a stark contrast with her life at court.
In effect, Liz Dalby has pieced together sources from various works and her own experience in Japan, using what she calls literary archaeology, the result being not only the recreation of Murasaki’s imagined life, but also some of her actual poems too. This mixture of fact and fiction is a very successful one. And it is no surprise that the book stands out as a convincingly realistic one, because the author was one of the few Westerners to become a geisha as part of her PhD thesis in 1983.
If you wish to be transported to a radically different world, this is a book I can highly recommend. I would also recommend The Tale of Genji, if only to experience the world’s very first novel and to wonder what the final lost chapter could have been.