Friday, 30 October 2015

Book Review: A Tale of False Fortunes by Enchi Fumiko History is a matter of point of view. Despite dates and facts serving as cornerstones to reconstruct past events, our knowledge of times gone by is inevitably biased since it is always filtered by the historians who write it down according to their own backgrounds and interests. We never get a complete picture, we never know all sides to what happened. Thus especially the female dimension of history has been widely neglected, not to say passed over in silence for many centuries although there are traces of it to be found if thoroughly looked for. Historical fiction of merit and quality can help to bring back to light forgotten or misjudged women of the past. One such work is A Tale of False Fortunes by Enchi Fumiko that evokes the tragic events surrounding Fujiwara Teishi, the  first consort of Emperor Ichijō, who lived in Japan in the late tenth century.

Enchi Fumiko (円地 文子) was born Ueda Fumi (上田 富美) in Tōkyō, Japan, in October 1905. Being of delicate health, she was mainly home taught by private tutors whose focus was on international as well as Japanese literature since her father was the distinguished philologist Ueda Kazutoshi (上田 萬年). As early as in 1926 she made her literary debut with the publication of the one-act play ふるさと (Birthplace) which was received with critical acclaim and followed by other successful dramas. After her marriage with a journalist in 1930 Enchi Fumiko turned to narrative fiction although she had a hard time getting her short stories published and didn’t get much attention as a writer until the novel ひもじい月日 (Days of Hunger) brought her literary breakthrough in 1954. Notable works of the prolific author that are also internationally known are above all the short story Enchantress (: 1956) along with the novels The Waiting Years (女坂: 1957), Masks (女面: 1958), and A Tale of False Fortunes (なまみこ物語: 1965). Her ten-volume translation of Murasaki Shikibu’s classic 源氏物語 (c. 1000 a.d.; The Tale of Genji) into modern Japanese, that she produced between 1967 and 1973, has been widely praised. Enchi Fumiko died in Tōkyō, Japan, in November 1986.

At the centre of A Tale of False Fortunes are the ten years of her life that Fujiwara Teishi passed at the Japanese Imperial Court (between 990 and her premature death in 1001). As a granddaughter of Fujiwara regent Kaneie and daughter of his eldest son Michitaka, she has been destined from early childhood to be a pawn in Japanese politics. To strengthen her closest family’s power, she is made the consort of eleven-year-old Emperor Ichijō soon after her sixteenth birthday. It goes without saying that love is of no consequence in this union although from the beginning the boy Emperor and Teishi hold each other in high esteem. For some years they are like brother and sister, but as the boy grows into a man they come to truly love each other. The obvious intimacy and confidence in the relations between Consort Empress Teishi and Emperor Ichijō are all but welcome at court and intrigues are spun against her to reduce her and her brothers’ influence. Above all since her father died, Teishi has a difficult standing at court because both the emperor’s mother Empress Dowager Senshi, who is at the same time her aunt, and her uncle Michinaga, who has always been favoured by his sister and is now regent, want to get rid of her to establish Michinaga’s eldest daughter Shōshi as new consort empress. The fact that Teishi gives birth to a girl and two years later to a boy subjects her as well as her family even more to their machinations. Based on false charges the schemers manage to have Teishi’s brothers sent into exile so they can no longer protect her, but despite their efforts Emperor Ichijō stands by his beloved consort who is pregnant with serious complications again. Nonetheless, her fate is sealed and in more than one respect…

As already the prologue of A Tale of False Fortunes reveals, the portrait of Consort Empress Teishi is quite an unusual one. Much like a research paper or an essay it interweaves information from A Tale Of Flowering Fortunes (栄花物語) by Akazome Emon and/or Fujiwara Tamenari, which is a source from the Heian period well known at least among experts of classical Japanese literature, and from a rare manuscript that the author declares to have often read in her youth and with such zeal that decades later she can still remember many passages word for word. The story of how the document ever came into her hands and got lost later is so credible and the sections quoted from it are so convincing in style that many tried to find the original although Enchi Fumiko never concealed that in fact she made it up following the example of Tanizaki Jun’ichirō in A Portrait of Shunkin (春琴抄). Moreover, through her many interjected comments the author ever again puts into question the reliability both of her memory and of the (fictitious) manuscript itself thus arousing at the same time suspicion as for what is real and what invented. Apart from these three levels of narration depicting the life of Teishi from very different points of view – acknowledged historical source, fictitious document of dubious quality, and author’s commentary – there is still a fourth dimension, namely that of spirit possession rounding off the portrait. In translation much of the author’s great stylistic skill must inevitably be lost, but it’s an engaging read and despite its complex structure it's not too difficult to follow.

When I set out to read A Tale of False Fortunes by Enchi Fumiko, I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy a historical novel set in a time and a place so remote from my own. In the end, the cultural barrier turned out to be a lot less important, though, than I had thought since court intrigues are quite universal and also in European, notably Austrian history many aristocrats married off their children to gain or secure power. Thus Teishi could just as well have been the wife of a European sovereign and she along with her family could have suffered a very similar fate. In my opinion, this is an important insight that deserves being spread around the world.

* * * * * 

This review is a contribution to:

Valentina's 2015 Women Challenge # 3 on Peek-a-booK!.
»»» please read my post to know more.





»»» please read my post to see my list of books.


  1. The story of Fujiwara Teishi sounds quite interesting. Her dates were 977 – 1001.
    I misunderstood what you said about 990.

    1. Yes, Fujiwara Teishi was born in 977, but she was introduced at the Imperial Court only in 990 - when she became the consort of Emperor Ichijō.

      Thanks for your comment!


Dear anonymous spammers: Don't waste your time here! Your comments will be deleted at once without being read.