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Book Review: Rivalry: A Geisha’s Tale by Nagai Kafu

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Much of Nagai Kafu’s work unfortunately has yet to be translated into English. After reading his collection of short stories, titled American Stories, I had much hope for this book, yet at the same time I’d been warned by a Kafu fan that Rivalry, while a good read, is nowhere near his best work. I find myself surprised that I agree with said assessment, for often what I am told by others I discover to be the opposite. I approach this review as not a fan, but as someone who knew little to nothing about Kafu before reading his work, save for the influence he had upon other Japanese writers.

American Stories is a great collection that is economical, spare and inventive in form. Rivalry, while a fairly short read (under 200 pages), is in itself not particularly inventive or much of a major work, comparatively. This does not mean the book is without merit, but Rivalry is a fairly standard novel that reminds me of what most Westerners who have not read any Japanese literature would think a Japanese novel is like. The novel precedes both Kawabta’s Snow Country and Tanizaki’s Some Prefer Nettles — two titles Rivalry put me in mind of and also perhaps influenced. However, both said works are not only better books than Rivalry, but also more complex. In other words, Kawabata and Tanizaki seem to have taken what they learned from Kafu in this instance, and went beyond him.

To make another comparison, Rivalry would be equivalent to a Hollywood film — standard shots, nice costumes but low on complex characters and ideas. While the novel is better than the crap that gets published today, it pales beside his much better work, American Stories. Rivalry involves the story of a woman who, after suffering personal loss, returns to her earlier profession of geisha. Some pettiness occurs between the geishas when a client chooses one over another, and so there’s lots of bickering behind one’s back, revenge, jealousy, etc. Even the title — Rivalry — yeah, that’s basically it. Much of the story is told in a fairly plot-driven manner and thus lacks some of the higher symbolism found in Snow Country, for example. Even after finishing Rivalry, I have a hard time remembering the characters, since they are not presented in the intricate way as that of Kawabata or Tanizaki.

There are also moments of description that are fairly standard and not overly interesting. But that does not mean there aren’t moments of psychological insight:

“Even if she continued to insist that he stay with her, he was perfectly capable of matching her obstinacy, to the point of shaking her off and walking out the door. He knew quite well that no matter what spiteful things might be said on either side, when it came to moments like this, women were the weaker sex. He did not have to consult the appropriate passages about… to know that he could simply let her go for a time and that a kind word from him would eventually bring her to heel.”

The benefit to Rivalry is that while in many ways it is not as multifaceted as some of the better Japanese novels, it is fairly straightforward and plot driven, and it doesn’t offer many surprises. While these things are not good for the benefit of great art, simplicity often appeals to casual readers, and so, hey, here you have a standard geisha tale told from a male point of view. Another benefit is that Rivalry can give some insight into what Kawabata and Tanizaki had to build off of, but for anyone looking for the best in Japanese literature, Rivalry isn’t it. Hell, it is not even the best of Kafu.

If I sound like I am shitting on the novel, I don’t mean to — as is, it is a better than average book, better than that Memoirs of a Geisha garbage (any reader of Japanese literature should be embarrassed by such schlock). But is it a great book? No way. American Stories is definitely the work to pursue over Rivalry. And if you’re dying for a good Japanese novel, the others mentioned in this review are a better place to start.

Rivalry is available through Columbia University Press, and they offer an attractive book translated by Stephen Snyder. This edition should not be confused with Tuttle’s Geisha in Rivalry, which is the same novel, only a different translator. I have been told by my Kafu fan-friend that Columbia’s Snyder translation is the superior translation of the two. One Amazon reviewer called Tuttle’s version “outdated” but as someone who has not compared the two, I can only trust what I hear. Readers will decide the rest. Though I do plan to revisit Kafu again soon.

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About Jessica Schneider

  • Mary

    Drop the profanity, it’s a real turn off.

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