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Oldest surviving novel turns 1,000

A serial seducer who enchants aristocratic women with poems on scented paper and gifts of luxurious kimono, Genji turns 1000 this year, his appeal to readers undiminished.

books Updated: Mar 19, 2008 03:11 IST

A serial seducer who enchants aristocratic women with poems on scented paper and gifts of luxurious kimono, Genji turns 1000 this year, his appeal to readers undiminished.

The Casanova hero of Japan’s earliest surviving novel, which was recognised as a masterpiece not long after it was written by an obscure lady of the 11th century Imperial court, Genji has inspired everything from scroll paintings to films, cartoons and even a 1980s roller-skating pop group.

Schoolchildren still study parts of the work and three major English translations have brought international acclaim for the author known as Murasaki Shikibu, her real name is unknown.

“If you boiled Japan’s cultural heritage down to one book, it would have to be The Tale of Genji,” said Jakucho Setouchi, an 85-year-old writer and Buddhist nun who devoted a decade of her life to a modern Japanese translation of the work, which has sold close to three million copies.

“The book may appear in different forms, but its genius remains,” she said in a lecture in February in Kyoto, one of dozens of events planned to mark the work’s anniversary.

Japanese men dream of being like the prince whose looks, intelligence, exquisite taste and talent for everything from music and dance to poetry have led some literary commentators to dub him the “perfect” hero.

Born the son of an Emperor and a concubine, the boy known as “Shining Genji” for his beauty, is barred from the throne because of his mother’s lowly status, but by crafty plotting later becomes one of the most powerful men in the land.

Female readers tend to sympathise with his conquests, whose fate offers a vivid picture of the status of women in the Heian period, which ran from 794 to 1185.