As Basho hovers between life and death, his disciples perform the ritual act of brushing his lips with water, while their reactions to the poet’s passing range from revulsion to relief. A man prepares himself for his first murder, and the woman who is his conspirator finds herself playing an unanticipated role in the killing the two have planned together. Recent university graduates on a seaside holiday before searching for jobs in Tokyo, watch young women swimming among the jellyfish that have kept the students from the water. A saintly young man who is the protégé of Christian priests falls from grace and into penury, until an act of courage leads to his death, his redemption, and the revelation of the shadow world that he had made his own.
These and other characters in Mandarins, a collection of brief and haunting stories, are poised between actions, where author Ryunosuke Akutagawa examines them as though they were butterflies impaled on the pointed ends of pins. Each story, a carefully constructed world of sadness and a kind of hopeless beauty, is precisely described in spare and graceful sentences. As a group, they linger and tease and disturb, inhabiting their readers in ways that are not always comfortable.
The temptation to look at many of these stories as offering an autobiographical glimpse of Akutagawa is great, especially since two of the most revealing tales—“Cogwheels” and “The Life of a Foll,” which explore the inner workings of a tortured mind—both appeared just before he died of an overdose of Veronal in 1927. What they do reveal is Akutagawa’s thoughts about his country after its rush from isolation to modernity, and in the beginning of its expansion before World War Two. “The Garden,” with its examination of tradition altered and destroyed, its “undeniable intimation of impending ruin,” clearly shows the author’s distaste for the changes that Japan went through during his lifetime. Translator Charles De Wolf’s notes at the conclusion of the book illuminate both the writer and his work, though he also cautions against mere historicity, saying, “to relentlessly render factual—historical or biographical—what should be left as literary would surely spoil the story.”
It is certain, however, that these stories plunge fearlessly into the place that lies between sanity and madness, between tradition and modernity, between the past and the future. Creations of the beginning of the last century, they could easily have been written yesterday, and will last far beyond tomorrow.