The Tale of Murasaki

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The Tale of Murasaki is written in the form of a memoir by Lady Murasaki, a member of the Heian court at Miyako (now Kyoto) and author of the world-famous Tale Of Genji. Author/anthropologist Liza Dalby, who specializes in Japanese culture, has included excerpts from Murasaki’s thousand-year-old diary and most of her brief, oblique poems, through which educated folk traditionally communicated.

When Murasaki's father is appointed governor of a rural province, she accompanies him, hoping to delay an unwelcome marriage. In her world, women are essentially powerless; their destiny is to marry and have children or to take religious vows. Some, like her friend Ruri, kill themselves rather than accept such a life.

Although Murasaki has been educated, her views are broadened by exposure to life beyond the capital, especially through contact with visitors from China. (Young Murasaki wonders whether fireflies are truly the lingering souls of dead babies, as she has been taught, or born of the rotting vegetation of summer, as the Chinese believe.) Eventually she returns to Miyako, marriage, and life as a lady-in-waiting to the Empress. Her growing awareness is mirrored in the stories of Prince Genji that she writes to amuse herself and others.

Dalby, the only Western woman ever to become a geisha, presents a fascinating view of medieval Japan, where the residence chambers of the Imperial Palace contain no lavatories, and smallpox rages unchecked in summer months. Still, fashionable women seductively blacken their teeth while courtiers ink spontaneous poems to display their wit or longing. This book is filled with small delights, including the brilliance of court robes, bilingual poetry, and endpapers in the rich purple known as murasaki.