NAOMI. By Junichiro Tanizaki. Translated from the Japanese by Anthony H. Chambers. Knopf. 237 pp. $15.95.
IN SEPTEMBER, 1923, a major earthquake devastated the Tokyo-Yokohama area and had an equally unsettling effect on a 37-year-old writer who lived there. Junichiro Tanizaki, identified up to that point with those who wanted to see Japan as Westernized as possible, moved to the more old-fashioned Kyoto-Osaka area and became increasingly involved with his country's traditions. His subsequent work, culminating in the masterful The Makioka Sisters, made him perhaps the pre-eminent Japanese novelist of this century, but before all of that came the first novel Tanizaki wrote from his new home in his new frame of mind. That would be Naomi.
Never before available in English, Naomi was pblished in 1924 as A Fool's Love, a title it had as recently as 1982 when it was so listed on the jacket of Knopf's Anthony Chambers translation of another work by Tanizaki, The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi. Though the new title was doubtless chosen with an eye on potential sales, it is appropriate because one of the main things that fatally attracts Joji, the book's 28-year- old narrator, to a 15-year-old waitress is that very name: "A splendid name, I thought; written in Roman letters, it could be a Western name."
A self-described "country bumpkin . . . frugal, earnest, conventional to the point of excess," Joji is also a slavish admirer of all things Western. In fact what he really likes about Naomi is how she "resembled the motion picture actress Mary Pickford: there was definitely something Western about her appearance." Joji begins hanging out at her bar, takes her to (what else but) a Mary Pickford movie, and convinces both her and her sluggish parents that it's in everyone's best interests if she comes to live with him as a kind of young ward whose education and upbringing he will oversee.
At first everything between Joji and Naomi is sweetness itself: he buys her exotic clothes, bathes her, keeps a diary called "Naomi Grows Up" and eventually secretly marries her. His goal in life, his dream of turning Naomi into the ultimate Western objet ("I wanted to boast to everyone, 'This woman is mine. Take a look at my treasure.'") seems about to be realized.
The problem, of course, turns out to be Naomi herself. The more Westernized she gets, the more monstrous and uncontrollable she becomes. She refuses to shop, won't be concerned with cleaning. "She didn't even want to bother with boiling rice." And soon enough Joji starts to suspect her of involvements with other men, the very thought of which drives him mad. For him, Naomi is a piece of fruit he's ever so carefully brought "to its present, magnificent ripeness, and it was only proper that I, the cultivator, should be the one to taste it. No one else had that right. But then, when I wasn't looking, a total stranger had ripped off the skin and taken a bite. . . . The precious, sacred ground of her skin had been imprinted forever." How Joji finally comes to terms with what he fears his wife has become is the crux of Naomi.
To summarize Tanizaki's shrewdly satiric book, however, is to do it a pair of injustices, making it sound too baldly derivative of Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage (which apparently was well-known in Japan) on the one hand, and too schematic and predictable a screed against the West on the other. And in fact, according to translator Chambers, in Japan "Naomi was one of the archetypes of the 'modern girl,' so much so that her name and 'Naomi-ism' became household words."
What saves Naomi from both these traps are the enviable skills and striking sensibility Tanizaki was able to command even in this, his first major novel. Tanazaki's prose is clean and inviting and the character of Joji exquisitely drawn, his uncomprehending guilelessness the perfect tool for the author's deft cross-cultural thrusts. Also evident in Naomi is Tanazaki's fascination with the obsessive side of sexuality, later to flower in novels like The Key and Diary of A Mad Old Man. One cannot help shuddering in uneasy delight at lines like "a woman's face grows more beautiful the more it incurs a man's hatred" or Juji's description of one of Naomi's rare fits of affection: "Like a postal clerk urgently cancelling a flood of letters, she pressed her lips ferociously to my forehead and nose, above my eyelids, behind my ears, and over every inch of my face." Sixty years after it was published, this is one sanctified novel that is still very much alive and well.