‘The Tale of Genji’, or Genji Monogatari, is often called ‘the world’s first novel’, albeit not without other contenders being mentioned.

The novel was written in the Japanese language in or around the year 1021 by Murasaki Shikibu, a woman of high rank and a personal assistant to Japan’s royal women in Heian period. So the world’s first novelist was a woman! But Murasaki is not the real name and the writer had assumed it, perhaps to protect her identity, alluding to the main female character in the novel.

Japanese woman poet Akiko Yosano translated it into modern Japanese in the early 20th century, as the original text was in a language that is now almost archaic and extremely difficult for the average Japanese to understand. Aside from an early but incomplete and substandard English translation, it was rendered into English by orientalist Arthur Waley in six volumes, with the first volume coming out in 1925 and the last one in 1933. But the novel became more well-known around the world when Japanese fiction writer Yasunari Kawabata referred to it while delivering his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1968.

Another English translation came from Edward George Seidensticker, a scholar of Japanese, in 1976. A few more English translations followed.

The book narrates life of Hikaru Genji and his numerous love affairs with different women including concubines. Genji is a prince who is relegated to a much lower position and sent in exile by his half-brother, the emperor. Ultimately, Genji is pardoned and he returns to Kyoto, the then capital of Japan. His son, a love-child, becomes emperor, knowing that Genji was his real father. Murasaki, Genji’s beloved, dies and a chapter hints at the death of Genji, too.

But the novel comes to an end all of a sudden and one feels it was left unfinished, though rumour had it that some more, concluding chapters had been found some time ago. Edward Seidensticker thought the writer had not planned any end and kept on writing as long as she could. But Toshikazu Isomura, Consul General of Japan in Karachi, in his brief intro to the book has hinted at a more plausible explanation: in those days paper was very scarce and whenever she got some pieces of paper the the author resumed her writing. This is one of the reasons why the novel took so long to finish. Quite interesting!

Though fictionalised, it is a first-hand account of lifestyle of Japanese royals and courtiers in the 11th century, as the writer was well aware of the ambience at the imperial palace and the web of court intrigue. Modern reader can have a feel of what the lives of aristocracy must have been in Japan about a thousand years ago.

‘The Tale of Genji’ was partially translated into Urdu by renowned critic Syed Ehtisham Hussain. He published, in 1971, an abridged Urdu version of its first nine chapters while the novel has 54. Now it has just been translated into Urdu in its entirety.

Renowned translator and poet Baqar Naqvi had begun translating ‘The Tale of Genji’ during a few last years of his life and had prepared the first draft. He had sent the manuscript to Khurram Suhail who had initially suggested to him the rendering of this Japanese novel into Urdu. But Naqvi Sahib died in 2019 and Khurram Suhail had no choice but to put finishing touches to the first draft.

With the help of English translations, Khurram Suhail had to revise the first draft many times over and was finally able to present the 1,300-page text in 1,100 pages in Urdu. But then Khurram felt that certain parts needed explanatory notes as some unfamiliar cultural and historical details might pose difficulties to Urdu readers. So he began working on the text yet again and added some very useful and informative footnotes to the text.

Prof So Yamane, a senior professor of Urdu and research scholar at Osaka University, Japan, in his intro has succinctly captured the essence of the novel. He says “the novel offers some themes that are found in today’s literature, too, for instance, love, marriage, mother’s love, job, success and failure in one’s career. What is more important is the fact it does not tell the good from the bad. It is not a moral or didactic work as it simply portrays the lives of common human beings, reflecting on their psychological state, their weaknesses, helplessness, anger, happiness, jealousies and envies”.

In his intro Kuninori Matsuda, the Ambassador of Japan to Pakistan, writes “this masterpiece is an amazing introduction for readers to the imperial, aristocratic and everyday culture of early Heian period of Japan”.

The Urdu translation is published by Karachi’s Raheel Publications.

drraufparekh@yahoo.com

Published in Dawn, September 13th, 2021

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