Review - The Diary of Murasaki Shikibu

Murasaki Shikibu is mainly known for her The tale of Genji, but she has made another important contribution to the literary heritage of old Japan, and that is her diary, or nikki as they are called in Japanese. A nikki is a collection of reflections and describtions of events, but not perhaps in a way a modern diary-writer would understand the task. Fair enough, this is written a little over a thousand years ago, conventions on writing change over time.

This diary is written in the first years of the 11th century, in a period called Heian. She is recently widowed and has a place at the imperial court, and the first part (and the end) is a description of life in the imperial household. The diary begins when the second consort of emperor Ichijo, Shoshi, was expected to give  birth to her first child, and then revolvs around this, the rituals surrounding birth and newly borns, but also court life as such. The second part of the book has the shape of a letter, both telling of Murasaki's thoughts on life (which come across as rather gloomy) and her opinions on other courtiers.

The main focus is descriptions. She describes rituals, people, nature and clothes. Everything is very beautiful and to the point in a way any modern writer could take notes from. But this is an old text and to a modern reader that can present a problem, you have to know quite a bit to be able to fully appreciate the text. That is why I would recommend any reader to sit down with a version with extensive footnotes. It might sound a bit boring, but it really isn't, and if you don't you will soon see the problems: not only are the officialls mentioned only by their titles and in a way that hints very little of who they were, but even the colours of the ladies in waiting's  robes are described in ways unknown to most modern readers (not to mention non-Japanese), and let's face it, most of us know precious little about rituals and their shape and meaning in Heian Japan.

All in all a beautiful read and an important document!

More about her can be found here!

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