Junichiro Tanizaki’s Naomi is about obsession. Joji, a mediocre businessman, lets his obsession of the mysterious girl Naomi overtake him. Yet, while the novel is full of sensual obsession, it is ultimately about obsession with Western culture, for Naomi is a Western-looking girl that personifies an idealization of the west.
Whenever I recalled that Naomi was written in the 1920s, I was again taken aback. It felt so modern. Kawabata’s 1950s novel of the old capital of Kyoto (read last month), on the other hand, seemed steeped in tradition. Seeing the two novels in context to each other clarifies the clash between the Western traditions and the Japanese traditions, and I can now better understand Kawabata’s novel. Kyoto truly was the old capital, for Tokyo, where Naomi takes place, was much more Western even 40 years earlier.
I began Naomi knowing very little, so I hesitate to write very much about it. I knew that it revolved around a man who was obsessed with a mysterious Western-looking woman. Although Naomi is definitely Japanese, her features seem “Eurasian” and so she stands out in a crowd. If I tell you further any of the details as to why this woman is engaging, it may somewhat spoil the effect of the novel. Suffice it to say, the mysteries that Tanizaki leaves unsaid for much of the novel left me wondering and interested. It was very well done.
In some respects, since Joji begins his obsession with Naomi when she was just 15, I wondered if this novel was similar to Nabakov’s Lolita (note to self: must read that some day). I felt uncomfortable throughout the novel. Joji’s obsession seemed to become progressively stranger as it progressed, and I became more and more convinced that Joji was insane. But while Tanizaki wrote sensually, it never was sexually uncomfortable to read (as I mentioned last week, I don’t normally appreciate sex scenes in my fiction). After all, this was published serially in the 1920s: things are suggested by not written out. It was, in that sense a tame book.
But beyond that, the question seems to me to be whether the obsession is on Naomi-the-woman or Naomi-the-representation-of-Westernization. I suspect Tanizaki is also capturing his society’s own obsession with the West. Seeing the novel in that light gives it a greater relevancy, and it makes me sad for the abandonment of the Japanese traditions.
Naomi dealt with an uncomfortable subject and had frustrating characters (I seriously wanted to hit Joji over the head a few times), so it was not a favorite read. Yet, I am very glad I read it. I learned something about the Japanese culture conflict with Westernization in the pre-World War II days. It was a quick and engaging read, and although I was reading late into the night, I seriously could not put it down because I wanted to see how it resolved. Frustrating as it was to read (like watching a train-wreck), it is a novel I won’t easily forget. It is one that anyone interested in Japanese literature or culture should experience.
Do “train-wreck” novels keep you engaged or turned off? What “train-wreck” novels have you liked?