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Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Masks by Fumiko Enchi (translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter)

In Masks, Enchi explores an intense and passionate relationship between two women – a mother-in-law and her widowed daughter-in-law, as viewed by two men who are rivals in the affection of the younger woman. It is an extremely intriguing novel, a tense psychological drama in which motives are questionable and actions open to interpretation.

The basic premise of the story is quite simple. Yasuko, the daughter in law, is recently widowed. Her husband, Mieko’s son Akio, was killed on the slopes of Mt. Fuji in a sudden avalanche. Ibuki is married with a small child, but desires Yasuko who is a student in his class. His friend Mikamē, a doctor, wishes to marry Yasuko. The story follows the men’s relationships with Yasuko and the enigmatic Mieko with whom Yasuko has a strangely disturbing relationship.

This is a story which heavily relies on the concepts of ‘masks’. In the early part of the novel Yasuko, Mieko, Mikamē and Ibuki visit a Nō master (Nō is a form of Japanese theatre, highly stylised and noted for its use of masks) who is displaying some old costumes and masks from his theatre days. Here they encounter various masks including two in particular which are highly relevant both to the two ladies and the rest of the story:

‘The mask’s forehead and cheeks were well rounded; the suggestion of a smile hovered around the eyes, their lids curved and drooping, and the lips, half parted to reveal a glimpse of teeth. By some extraordinary artistry in the carving of the mask, that smile could change mysteriously into a look of weeping.

“This is Magojirō. A young woman, like Ko-omote, but one with greater femininity and the fully developed charms of someone older, a young woman at the peak of her beauty. When you know the masks as well as we do, they come to seem like the faces of real women. And this, of all the masks handed down in our family, is the one I love best.” He handed the Magojirō mask carefully to Yasuko.

“But I’ll show you another mask that I couldn’t love if I wanted to, one that won’t even let me near, one that makes me feel a kind of irritation – even hatred may not be too strong a word. Its nam is Zō no onna. It’s used for the characters of exalted rank – the court lady in Burden of Love or the celestial being on Robe of Feathers.”

Yorikata picked up the mask and slowly extended his arms up and out, holding it level with his own face. It was the visage of a coldly beautiful woman, her cheeks tightly drawn. The sweep of the eyelids was long, and the red of the upper lip extended out to the corners of the mouth in an uneven and involved line, curving at last into a smile of disdain. A haughty cruelty was frozen hard upon the face, encasing it like crystals of ice on a tree.’

These two masks appear to represent Yasuko and Mieko who have a mysterious and complex relationship, one which appears to frighten Yasuko but from which she appears unable to escape. Or is she? This is a question which runs throughout the novel: which is the mask? There are so many: the Nō masks themselves which are highly representative objects; the masks of identity which both Yasuko and Mieko seem to wear, their ‘true’ identities hidden behind them; the mask of respectability which Ibuki wears, which slips when he enters into his illicit relationship with Yasuko. Which is the ‘mask’ and which is the truth? It is a question which Enchi opens up, but which she leaves you, the reader, to unpick as you will.

Ibuki and Yasuko enter into a sexual relationship, possibly at the behest of Mieko. Yasuko certainly seems to believe (or presents such a belief) it is the case. And it is Mieko, the silent unknowable woman, around whom this story pivots. All the intrigue, all the deceptions, all the psychological elements revolve around the older woman about whom each of the characters puzzle. As Yasuko describes here:

‘”It’s no game. Believe me, she is a woman of far greater complexity than you – or anyone – realize. The secrets in her mind are like flowers in a garden at nighttime, filling the dark with perfume. Oh, she has extraordinary charm. Next to that secret charm of hers, her talent as a poet is really only a sort of costume.”’

Alongside the presence of masks, Enchi also explores the concept of spirit possession. This is a concept which very closely aligns both with the story and the idea of ‘masks’. In the world of spirit possession, the body becomes a ‘mask’ for the spirit possessing it, hiding its true nature behind a human façade. All of the characters are in some way exploring or researching this idea, but it is Mieko who seems to have made the greatest, albeit secret, breakthrough. In his own research Mikamē discovers a paper that Mieko wrote many years early called ‘An Account of the Shrine in the Fields’ in which she explores the story of the Rokujō lady from The Tale of Genji. In the story, the Rokujō lady, a jealous lover of Genji’s, uses her spirit to attack his wife which eventually leads to the wife’s death. The character of the Rokujō lady is a minor one in the Tale of Genji, but Mieko writes a paper describing a more sympathetic interpretation of the story. Is this, too, because Mieko is a Rokujō lady herself, attacking the spirits of others either knowing or unbeknowing? When confronted about the significance of the paper, Mieko dismisses it, but you are left feeling that its importance is somehow the cornerstone of the whole story.

Further complicating the story is the discovery that Yasuko’s husband Akio had a twin sister who had been separated from him at birth and brought up separately. The sister, Harumē suffered some mental disability as a result of apparent abuses heaped upon her by her brother before they were born. Following Akio’s death, Harumē came to live with her mother, but her presence remained a secret. Harumē herself then becomes a ‘mask’, a puppet, in Mieko’s bigger plan (which is never really made clear) which involves tricking Ibuki into sleeping with her, believing he is with Yasuko. It is at this point that the question arises: how much is Yasuko being controlled, or how much is she implicit in the terrible acts that are being played out here?

It’s a complex novel, extraordinarily so considering its brevity. Yet there’s a sense that there is no word misplaced here, every step of the story has been cleverly and carefully crafted. I found myself, again, impressed by Enchi’s writing skill, her ability to craft a story without missing a beat. Masks is an intense read, it is intriguing and clever and deep. It is a highly sexual story, raising questions about gender relations, the motives that drive people and the nature of identity. That Mieko is somehow at the centre of it all is apparent, yet Mieko is the one character we never really get to know. As Yasuko says: “it seems to me she must be one of the last women who lives that way still - like the masks – with her deepest energies turned inwards.”

Enchi is a great writer, one who deserves to be mentioned alongside the other Japanese greats like Kawabata, Abe and Soseki. I find it quite depressing that so few of her works have been translated to English – only 3 out of 7 works. It is a similar situation to that of Yoko Ogawa who is similarly overlooked, despite being an extraordinary writer. Yet at the same time the shelves are bulging with works from writers like Murakami (both) or Taichi Yamada who aren’t fit to wash her socks. Such a shame. I’d like to think that gender wasn’t at play here, especially considering how ‘feminist’ Enchi’s work is, but I can see no other reason why she isn’t recognised as the astonishingly great writer she is.

Masks is a brilliant, psychological drama which draws you in right from the beginning. A short and somewhat shocking novel which will leave you thinking about it for days afterwards.