Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Racy Ancient Literature

In a previous post, I wrote a little about Haruki Murakami's new book of essays, The Enormous Turnip; The Difficult Avocado. At the time I hadn't yet read the first eponymous essay and so did my best to project my own thoughts onto what our lover of deep holes might be up to.

I'm happy to report I've read it now — to my surprise Murakami has shot off in an entirely different direction. After introducing us to the wholesome version of the tale that all Japanese children know (with all of the townspeople pulling together to remove the turnip) Murakami tells us that the Russian "original" indeed has a precursor — in ancient Japanese literature — and the story is a racy one.

According to Murakami, before the Russian version, there was a similar story in the Konjaku Monogatari (今昔物語) a thirty-one volume collection of tales from India, China, and Japan written  in the Heian Period (794-1185). All of the stories in these volumes start with the phrase "Now long ago (今は昔) which Murakami himself slips into the retelling of the turnip tale.

His recounting goes something like this: Now long ago, a prince was traveling from the Western Capital to the Eastern one, when all of a sudden he was overcome by a burning sexual desire (i.e. a raging hard-on). He happened to be in the countryside near a field, so he went over and pulled out the biggest turnip he could find, made a hole in it, and, after relieving his desire inside it, tossed the used thing back into the field.

The next day, a young woman came by and found the ravaged vegetable with the hole in it. What did she do? Of course, she ate the whole thing (I kid you not) and soon thereafter became pregnant. Her parents couldn't quite comprehend how the eaten turnip could have caused their daughter's condition, and were not a little put out, but nine months later, when a beautiful child was born, they changed their minds.

Of course, all that is needed is for this strange tale to have an even happier ending — which we get in the form of the Prince coming back round after five years to see what has happened to the turnip he had poked. After learning the story, and meeting his child, he decides to do the right thing by sticking around and marrying the girl.

Murakami tells us it is a strange tale. He tells us it's surreal. That there is no moral. That to arbitrarily have sex with a turnip can be a good thing (turnips not possessing personality or feelings). That the Russian and Japanese tales, are two entirely different species.

"Somewhat strange, but good, this fairytale," he tells us. Yes.

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