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Book Review: The Gourmet Club by Junichiro Tanizaki

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With great novels such as Naomi and Some Prefer Nettles, Junichiro Tanizaki is definitely one of Japan’s finest writers. His characters are complex, scenes are subtlety expressed and there are even moments of humor within his works. The Gourmet Club is a collection of six short stories — a “sextet” if you will, and while these tales reveal an array of subject matter and style, they are ultimately very good tales that just miss the mark for greatness.

Tanizaki seems to write his best in the novel form — it is within this longer form where he can develop characters to their full potential, rather than just offering snippets or scenes. In his novella, The Key, for example, Tanizaki shows he can approach experimental narrative successfully, but thus far, none of the shorter works of his that I’ve read can compare to his best novels.

“The Children” is one of Tanizaki’s early stories, and it is a well written, albeit rather odd, tale. A group of children play sadistic games in which ideas of power, sex and dominance between the sexes are explored. While it is possible to intellectualize this hierarchy of domination into a lengthy Freudian exploration, ultimately readers are given glimpses into the strange sorts of games young children play, and despite the sadism involved, the tale reads more silly than disturbing.

“The Secret” is the second tale within the collection, and Tanizaki does a good job of establishing the character, yet overall, this tale is not as complex as “The Children.” The big “secret” the tale speaks of isn’t really any shock, and while it is still a solid tale, it is a drop-off in quality from the first.

“The Two Acolytes” involves religious themes and is a rather good story. Translator Paul McCarthy writes a great deal about this tale in his introduction, where he notes that this is an atypical story within this collection and also for Tanizaki. He writes: “Here two boys engaged in religious training on Mt. Hiei are faced with a choice: to remain on the holy mountain or to enter the world outside, with its pleasures and pains.” The tale offers an interesting paradox, in that, to remain in a world without pain would also involve a world of isolation and in a sense, unreality. In contrast, what we define as real will also accompany a kind of joy that can only be obtained from having to engage in such reality. The tale offers interesting layers as far as religion and fantasy go, and the balance one must endure when choosing which life to live. “The Two Acolytes” is one of the best tales in this collection.

“The Gourmet Club” involves a group of food-driven individuals, if there is such a term. The club is held at a mansion owned by a Count, and soon it becomes a tale of consumption — not merely of food, but those who become consumed by it. Strange items begin to appear on the menu, hinting at both obsession and even “raving lunacy,” as the narrator notes.

“Mr. Bluemound” is another tale that dips into obsession, but this time through that of a fan. Nakada is a film director whose wife has appeared in many of his films. Mr. Bluemound is a fan of Yurako (Nakada’s wife) but only in some fantastical way — he is fascinated with his idea of her that exists upon the old celluloid. There are some good, natural moments of dialogue that involve the discussion of fantasy from reality, and in fact, the tale also argues that the fantasy can be in itself its own form of reality since it can be just as much alive as what is in real life. The narrative also has a unique structure in how it begins, for Yurako at first believes her husband to have died from tuberculosis, but it is only after reading his confession that she learns what the real reason is and what “the Real Yurakos” are. “Mr. Bluemound” is an excellent exploration on obsession and fantasy.

“Manganese Dioxide Dreams” is the final tale. The speaker is well developed and spends the time ruminating on his ideas of dreams, French films and also his own bodily excretion. The narrative has a very free and organic feel and the voice is strong. Tanizaki delves into assorted subjects and then bounces them back upon one another, establishing connections between things one would not immediately connect. One reviewer on Amazon commented that this tale could have gone on a lot longer — possibly into a novel, and I agree this story has the potential for such. The ending is also powerful, in addition to being a good way to end the collection as a whole.

Overall, The Gourmet Club is a very good collection that falls short of greatness. What keeps me from declaring it great is that the lyricism could have been a bit better in parts and some moments within the translation could have been a bit tighter. While there are no bad moments in any of the tales, there are a few instances where modifiers are a bit predictable and pedestrian. Just to contrast, Tanizaki’s novels have great moments of poetic lyricism, so perhaps this lack is due to this co-translation by Anthony H. Chambers and Paul McCarthy.

As is, The Gourmet Club is a rewarding read that falls short of Tanizaki’s great novels like Naomi and Some Prefer Nettles where within the longer narrative, all parts cohere into a memorable movement of beauty and complexity, not just some.

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