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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Siren's Lament

Tanizaki Jun'ichirō

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Title: The Siren's Lament
Author: Tanizaki Jun'ichirō
Genre: Stories
Written: 1910/1915/1917 (Eng. 2023)
Length: 190 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: The Siren's Lament - US
The Siren's Lament - UK
The Siren's Lament - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Essential Stories
  • Includes
    • The Qilin (麒麟; 1910)
    • Killing O-Tsuya (お艶殺し; 1915)
    • The Siren's Lament (人魚の嘆き; 1917)
  • Translated and with a Preface by Bryan Karetnyk
  • Killing O-Tsuya was previously translated by Zenchi Iwado as A Spring-Time Case (1927)

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Our Assessment:

B : solid little collection, with some very fine dark scenes

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian A 27/9/2023 John Self
The Washington Post . 29/9/2023 Robert Rubsam

  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)hese two stories (never before translated) and novella (out of print in English for a century) are undiscovered jewels. As we might expect from Tanizaki, emotions are intense." - John Self, The Guardian

  • "Many of Tanizaki’s best works keep his characters at a distance, yet that very quality opens a rich space for both writer and reader, suggesting a character’s complicated inner life by how each performs their particular role, whether teacher or pupil, master or servant, and finding irony in the gaps. Unfortunately, none of the stories in this volume approaches the heights of his best work. (...) (I)n these stories we have that still-young man, randy and undisciplined, ranging everywhere for pleasure, seeking still some powerful force to subdue him once and for all." - Robert Rubsam, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Siren's Lament collects three works: "taken from the audacious early years of Tanizaki's career", as translator Bryan Karetnyk puts it in his Preface. While the novella published here as 'Killing O-Tsuya' has been previously translated, the two other stories are new to English -- and it's always good to see more Tanizaki (though what one would give for a start-to-end collected edition, rather than the selective and somewhat haphazard mix of collections we've been treated to in recent years).

       'The Qilin' features Confucius himself, leaving: "the land of his birth to preach the Way abroad". He eventually reaches Wei, ruled by Duke Ling, -- where Confucius finds:

The people here had grown emaciated with hunger and toil, and the walls of their houses sighed with grief and sorrow. All the lovely flowers of this land had been transplanted to the palace to delight the eyes of the sovereign consort, while the plump boars had been taken and served up to please her sophisticated tastes.
       Duke Ling is eager to learn from Confucius -- hoping to: "learn from him the art of subjugating everything under heaven" -- but for all his apparently sweeping ambition, he's soon on board with Confucius' virtuous programme. Unsurprisingly, it's Nanzi, the sovereign consort, who is the problem -- and who doesn't appreciate this rival for her husband's attention and devotion one bit.
       Her personal philosophy shares little with Confucius' -- and her seductive powers don't pack their usual punch with the great sage:
     'I have heard talk of those who have great virtue,' said Confucius. 'But of those who have great beauty, I know nothing.'
       But she's nothing if not resourceful -- with a lot of resources at hand -- and zealous. Has Confucius met his match in Nanzi and her flattery -- "Ah, how your bearing grows more noble, how your features grow ever more in their splendour" -- and her threats ? Because she also gives him a viewing of the fate of those who displease her -- Tanizaki at his darkest and most graphically evocative. At least, Confucius learns a lesson for his Analects .....

       In the novella 'Killing O-Tsuya' twenty-year-old Shinsuke, an apprentice at a pawnshop in Edo (Tokyo) is in love with the owner's daughter, O-Tsuya, and when the novel opens O-Tsuya pushes him to finally elope with her. Seiji, a customer who was aware of their feelings for each other had offered to act as haven and then go-between to convince their parents to accept that they are meant for one another, so that's where they head. Seiji takes them in and says he'll take care of things -- but things drag on and on. It turns out Seiji has his own plans for O-Tsuya, which also involve getting Shinsuke out of the way.
       Shinsuke realizes -- too late -- what is going on, and is then left try to find what has become of O-Tsuya. However, the situation also immediately forces him to take shocking actions -- and once he's taken that first step he practically plunges into a world of darkness. As an experienced friend warns him: "when you have nothing left to fear in the world, everything becomes possible... You know, Shinsuke, this is a crucial moment for you".
       Shinsuke does find O-Tsuya -- and while on the one hand he is thrilled to be reünited with her, he is understandably troubled by what has become of her, and how she's adapted to the circumstances she now finds herself in, especially since she seems to be reveling so in it ..... For a time it looks like they can find happiness together again -- or has depravity taken too great a hold ? Well, the title of the novella certainly suggests the outcome -- but the appeal of it is in how the story comes to that conclusion, and especially how the characters are led there, with Shinsuke transformed from dutiful apprentice to a man shaped into something very different by circumstances and his experiences.

       The final story, 'The Siren's Lament' begins fairy-tale-like -- "A long, long time ago" ... -- and features a prince, Meng Shidao. Shidao likes to enjoy life, but indulging so much also leaves him craving more, as he eventually finds: "I've exhausted all the women and the wines that this tired city has to offer". Eventually, it is a visitor from afar -- "a man of the Western race" -- that comes to him with something that might do the trick, something he's never come across and that intrigues him -- a mermaid. The prince buys her, at great cost, -- wondering also how the foreigner can give this creature up so easily; the foreigner explains that where he's from : "mermaids are not so rare".
       Shidao is pleased with his purchase, but the mermaid is, in fact, a tortured soul, and she begs the prince: "Let me return to my marine abode, deliver me from this shame and distress" -- which he then does.
       Tanizaki adeptly uses the figure and its transformations to evoke a sense of lust and longing, and the conclusion is quite nicely turned.

       The three pieces in The Siren's Lament are all satisfying, with some of the dark and suggestive scenes particularly effective and powerful. These are perhaps not 'essential' stories -- but then what is ? -- but it's a nice little collection and a fine sampler of a great author's smaller work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 October 2023

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The Siren's Lament: Reviews (* review of an earlier translation of お艶殺し): Tanizaki Jun'ichirō: Other books by Tanizaki Jun'ichirō under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Tanizaki Jun'ichirō (谷崎 潤一郎) lived 1886 to 1965.

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© 2023 the complete review

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