Friday, 24 November 2017

Book Review: The Dragon Painter by Mary McNeil Fenollosa a strictly patriarchal society it can be bad luck bordering on disaster for a man to grow old without a male heir to continue the family tradition, especially when it’s a glorious one. The cultural pressure can be so strong that a man resorts to steps that by modern western standards are rather drastic and strange, if not downright loathsome. Divorce or even murder and following remarriage to father a son with another, younger and presumably more fertile woman like English King Henry VIII is one way, marrying off a daughter and adopting the son-in-law is another. The latter is what the ageing protagonist of The Dragon Painter by Mary McNeil Fenollosa does in Tōkyo of the early twentieth century, when a friend of the family sends a young man from the mountains to him whose exceptional talent and commitment make him worthy to carry on the name of the famous family of painters.

Mary McNeil Fenollosa was born Mary McNeill on her maternal grandparents’ plantation in Wilcox County, Alabama, USA, in March 1865. By 1892 she was once widowed, once divorced with two children to take care of. Having lived in Japan with her second husband and fallen in love with the culture, she got herself a job in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts where she met her third husband Ernest Fenollosa. After returning to Japan with him when he became official arts commissioner to the Japanese emperor, she began to write and brought out the poetry collection Out of the Nest. A Flight of Verses in 1899 following up with her first novel Truth Dexter in 1901 using the male pseudonym Sidney McCall under which she became fairly known. The most notable among her other novels are The Breath of the Gods (1905) and The Dragon Painter (1906), the only fiction work published under her real name. In 1908 the author’s husband died and she moved back to the USA. Seeing that none of her later novels was particularly successful, she gave up her career as a writer in 1919. Mary McNeil Fenollosa died in Montrose, Alabama, USA, in January 1954.

Kano Indara is a famous painter in Tōkyo of the early twentieth century. Growing old and seeing artists adopt Western methods, he has lost all hope to ever find The Dragon Painter to continue his century-old family tradition with the pliant Japanese brush. To his regret, his beloved wife died young and left him only with a daughter, Umè-ko, who is a good and obedient maiden of nineteen. He loves her dearly and even taught her to paint, but to him she is just a frail girl after all and ill-suited to follow in his footsteps as a true artist.
“[…] As it was, the girl could paint,—paint far better than most women even the famous ones of old. But, after all, no woman painter could be supreme. Love comes first with women! They have not the strong heart, the cruelty, the fierce imagination that go to the making of a great artist. […]”
One day, however, an old friend drops in on Kano and tells him that in a remote mountain region he has come across an exceptional painter and that he thought him more than worthy of becoming Kano’s pupil and adopted son through marriage to Umè-ko. A few paintings of the young man called Tatsu convince Kano at once that he could indeed be the heir to the family tradition that he has been looking for so long in vain and an invitation to him to come to Tōkyo is sent out although the friend describes him as wild and uncultured.
“One twilight hour, late in August, Tatsu came. […] There stood a creature with tattered blue robe just to the knees, bare feet, bare head, with wild, tossing locks of hair, and eyes that gleamed with a panther's light.”
The young man hasn’t come to stay for long, though. Hoping to keep him, Kano asks his daughter to sing and dance for them which she does with secret bliss for having taken to Tatsu at first sight. When Umè-ko enters the room, Tatsu recognises her as the Dragon Maid from his dreams and insists on marrying her immediately agreeing to become Kano’s adopted son. Only with difficulty Kano convinces the hothead that they’ll have to wait for at least a month. Everything seems to end well for Kano, but after the wedding Tatsu has no more desire to paint!

Set in old Japan at the dawn of modern times, The Dragon Painter evokes a scene and an atmosphere that must remind Western readers of a fairy-tale. In reality, the short novel is at the same time romantic love story with a karmic dimension and portrait of an aging artist who is ready to sacrifice everything including his daughter to keep alive values and traditions that are slowly replaced by new Western standards. With the father having his part in the married life of Umè-ko and Tatsu, it’s also a ménage à trois of sorts although not in the sense of a love triangle. The cultural background feels quite authentic to me unlike the characters that are too one-dimensional and predictable to my taste. It goes without saying, that I particularly dislike Umè-ko’s meek nature, but I admit that it may be appropriate considering the time setting and the country. As requires a novel about painters, descriptions of the surroundings are rich in picturesque, often lyrical and powerful images which are a pleasure to read. To me several passages felt unnecessarily lengthy, though, which may be because the author practically rewrote the novel starting from a previously published shorter version.

Admittedly, The Dragon Painter by Mary McNeil Fenollosa isn’t a book that I’ve been looking for with intent because I had heard so much about it that it made me curious, but rather one across which I stumbled by accident and that tempted me with its Japanese setting. It’s a precious time piece too because it shows life in Japan as the author saw it when she lived as an expatriate American in the country around 1900. The old painter’s points of view regarding his fellow citizens’ enthusiasm for everything Western and the drastic changes in Japanese society and lifestyle that it implied made me think of Natsume Sōseki’s satirical novel I Am a Cat (»»» read my review) that appeared at about the same time. The quality of Mary McNeil Fenollosa’s writing may not meet my usual standards, and yet, The Dragon Painter certainly is an engaging and interesting read that deserves my recommendation.

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