Book review: The Waiting Years

 The Waiting Years   Chemin de femmes  

Chemin de femmes
by Fumiko Enchi
First published as 女坂 in 1957, Translated from the Japanese into French
by
Anne Bayard-Sakai and Cécile Sakai
Gallimard, NFR, 1999
228 pages
The Waiting Years
translated by John Bester – Kodansha, 2002
203 pages
Historical fiction 

Goodreads

I didn’t find the book quickly enough in English, so I read it in its French translation. But I gave the information above to encourage you to read it in English if you can find it, as it’s really excellent.

The book is set at the end of the 19th century, near the end of the Meiji era, when feudal traditions were still alive, like here with Tomo, a high official’s wife, who serves him to the end, for the sake of the family unit. Submission to the husband was then the only way for women (as highlighted by the title in the French edition).

The plot is simple and unusual: at the opening of the book, Tomo is asked by her husband to go and find a young concubine for him. And there will be more young girls to find, as the book accompanies Tomo all her life. We also meet her children and grand-children.

What really struck me in this book was the finesse of the writing in presenting the psychological portrait of people and mostly women (apparently a characteristic of this Fumiko Enchi’s writing), des “femmes de l’ombre.”

Tomo aimait vraiment cet homme inflexible. C’était la lutte solitaire, sans merci, d’un amour jamais récompensé malgré un acharnement de tous les instants ; Tomo en souffrait, mais l’idée de partir ne l’avait pas une seule fois effleurée.

Une ombre couleur d’encre de Chine délavée nimbait Suga, taciturne, aux gestes las.

À chaque halte, ses yeux découvraient des maisons différentes, simple logis, magasin de fruits et légumes ou quincaillerie, mais toujours les ampoules électriques répandaient une lumière orangée d’une infinie clarté, les fumets de cuisine charriaient vers ses narines une chaleur d’une incomparable densité, faisant vaciller son cœur. Le bonheur… Un adorable petit bonheur harmonieux lui semblait se déployer au pied de ces lampes à la fragile lueur. Un modeste bonheur, une discrète harmonie… Que pouvait en définitive espérer de plus l’être humain, dans sa quête éperdue et acharnée, pleine de cris, de déraison, de sanglots ?

Women are shown in their rich complexity, sometimes even experiencing opposite feelings at the same time, and in their often difficult relationships with men and other women. At one point, Tomo can’t even point out if she feels love or hate for her husband.
Their inner struggle is a way for the author to illustrate the difficult mutation from traditional to modern Japan.
The social rumblings of the time are also show with “The Freedom and People’s Rights Movement”, as they are persecuted for demanding the establishment of an elected national assembly and the promulgation of a constitution.
On the opposite of the spectrum, you have Tomo’s mother, encouraging her to also submit to fate and to “Bouddha Amida”.

Most men here are pretty awful creatures (so self-centered, cruel, violent, totally insane even!

There are beautiful passages on nature, especially used to better describe characters.
To keep track of the many passages I enjoyed, I’m including them here. Sorry for not translating them in English.

Les reflets de la lune erraient sur les herbes du jardin mouillé par la rosée d’automne et, plus loin, à la lucarne de la nouvelle bâtisse, flottait la vague lueur d’une lampe dont la mèche avait été réduite.

Il avait beau aduler le corps de la jeune femme comme s’il se fût agi d’un joyau inestimable, l’impression qu’on la retenait prisonnière après un rapt grevait lourdement le cœur de Suga et, sans qu’elle s’en aperçût, sa beauté s’en trouvait voilée — tel un cerisier en fleur sous un ciel nuageux.

Les gestes, les paroles de Suga ne laissaient transparaître rien d’autre que l’inertie, mais dans le secret de son être s’amoncelaient des tourments insolubles, comme s’accumule la neige froide et noire tombant dru dans la nuit.

En cet après-midi limpide d’automne, les cris des milans retentissaient comme des flûtes dans le ciel d’un bleu translucide.

Les lampes, que l’on commençait tout juste à allumer, projetaient sur la neige des lueurs orangées et, de-ci de-là, mêlée à la fumée, l’odeur des poissons que l’on faisait griller pour le dîner s’échappait en hésitant de dessous les auvents.

Couchée dans la pièce donnant au midi, la tête reposant sur l’oreiller, Tomo pouvait voir le jour dessiner sur la blancheur des shôji l’ombre du vieil arbre, tel un lavis à l’encre de Chine.

VERDICT: Fabulous foray into woman psychology! Exquisite portraits of Japanese women, at a time when they lived in the shadow of men.

Eiffel-Tower#5Eiffel-Tower#5Eiffel-Tower#5Eiffel-Tower#5Eiffel-Tower#5

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10 thoughts on “Book review: The Waiting Years

  1. I lived in Japan for a year and I can tell you their attitudes towards women have not changed all that much, unfortunately. Not sure I’d enjoy this as I’m on a bit of a feminist streak at the moment, but it sounds beautifully written😁

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    • Oh wow, I didn’t know you lived there. Have you ever written about your experience? I would go if I were younger… Thanks for your cultural input though. I have a few Japanese friends and have other friends who’ve lived there recently, and I hadn’t detected that.
      Yes, so well written, but not for your feminist self right now, lol

      Like

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