It is very strange. And I cannot say, if I really liked it. It is one of these books, you just cannot put down and wonder, why you are still reading it.
Tanizaki describes the physical and psychological downfall of an old man in his seventies. Utsugi is physically ill with high blood pressure and pain in his hands. In addition to that his neck is aching and he has to cure himself by lying down on a hard wooden block head upside down wearing a corset temporarily. In his diary he is describing all his thoughts about his illnesses, how he cures it, which medication he needs and spares no details.
As you read through his accounts of daily routine soon his beautiful daughter-in-law appears on the scene. She was a dancer in her former life and is characterized as a type of modern Japanese girl, which appeared in the 20’s of the last century. A mix of an elegant woman with a certain bitchiness. Tanizaki makes a reference to Naomi – A fool’s love. His famous book about a femme fatale.
The old man hangs around in the house with nothing to do and becomes fascinated by Satsuko. And she uses her attractiveness in a selfish way — she lets the old man play around and pay for her taste of luxuries.
The other family members: the old man’s wive and Utsugi’s son, which is Satsuko’s husband, are described as shallow characters only appearing on the sideline. As they are going their own ways, they look away and do not seem to notice the strange relationship. In the shadow of Utsugi’s physical illness the old man uses tricks to get near his daughter- in-law and shows more irrational behaviors as the story evolves.
When Satsuko shows up with a huge diamond ring on her finger – a cat eye, worth a family house, the question arises on the wife’s side, why the old man makes such an expensive present for his daughter-in-law. Asked about that, Utsugi speaks about further plans of building a swimming pool in the garden for her as well. His obsession bears no limit. Towards the end of the book he worships Satsuko as a divine being by modulating her footprints into a sculpture with reference to buddha’s holy stone feet.
I do not think the Diary of a Mad Old Man is a must read, although it is one of the Japanese modern classics. The book is short with 180 pages, but the story has some length especially when Tanizaki describes the daily medication and treatments.The story is told from the first person’s perspective of Utsugi. Some viewpoints of his doctor and his nurse are added in the last 20 pages.
What makes the book so special is an underlying ironical melody. The old man’s inner dialogue is so embarrassing and self-revealing, but sometimes even funny. I often laughed about the madness of this old man. On the other hand the story has a bitter taste and that raises mixed feelings. It is not an easy read, but sure gives you something to think about.
There are similarities with one of his earlier works. Like in The Key Tanizaki uses diary style and talks about funny experiments in the bedroom. All in all it is a book about obsession and strange characters. And taken as that it is a delightful and special read.
Tanizaki Jun’ichirô: Futen Rôjin Nikki, 瘋癲老人日記 1961. Diary of a Mad Old Man. Translated by Howard Hibbett, 1965. Also made into a film by Keigo Kimura, 1962.