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THE MAIDS by Junichiro Tanizaki

THE MAIDS

by Junichiro Tanizaki ; translated by Michael P. Cronin

Pub Date: April 25th, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-8112-2492-5
Publisher: New Directions

Final work by Tanizaki (Red Roofs & Other Stories, 2016, etc.), one of the greatest 20th-century Japanese novelists.

Chikura Raikichi isn’t a voyeur, not exactly. A celebrated writer, he’s more of an anthropologist behind his own doors, and now, observing the ways of his maids and the night-crawling young men of the district, he’s in a nostalgic mood, as a doyenne in Alabama might have been in the 1960s. “We no longer call the household help ‘maids,’ "he sighs, “and we can’t simply address them by their given names, as we did in the old days.” As the narrator notes, Raikichi does not approve of such innovations as calling a maid “Sister,” since it’s a term used for the sake waitresses at the beef shops of old, too. Tanizaki, who died in 1965, focuses closely on all the changes that came over Japan after the war, when country girls stopped hiring on in service to fine households, harder work in all than finding a job in a factory or secretarial pool—and certainly stopped hiring on for life. “Today’s girls stay for six months or a year,” the narrator laments, “thinking it good training for married life, then they hear from home about a marriage prospect, and they’re gone.” In between moments of ponderous reflection, Raikichi delights in the simple ways of some of his servants, such as one who spoke in amusing dialect (“the jabbering of southern barbarians”) and another who, witnessing dogs copulating, was thrown by the subject until having it explained to her, whereupon “whenever she heard that two dogs were going at it, she would go to watch.” There’s a faintly musty exoticism to the whole enterprise, but Tanizaki, as always, is a keen student of human ways and admirable for his attention to detail; the slender book is reminiscent of the best of Turgenev, if without the Russian writer’s arch humor.

A small gem for admirers of Mishima, ?e, and other midcentury modernists.