Short Classics Get a Facelift
Brad Quinn / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
By Ryunosuke Akutagawa
Translated by Charles De Wolf
Archipelago Books, 255 pp, 16 dollars
As the unofficial “father of the Japanese short story” and with the nation’s most prestigious prize for new writers named in his honor, there is no doubt that Ryunosuke Akutagawa is one of Japan’s great literary figures. But two of the latest collections of translated Akutagawa stories–Charles De Wolf’s Mandarins and Jay Rubin’s Rashomon and 17 Other Stories (Penguin, 2006)–also display how the writer’s much-admired style still resonates with modern readers.
For readers new to Akutagawa, or who may know of him only through the classic Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon, based on two of his stories, Rubin’s collection provides an excellent introduction. The greatest hits are there–“Rashomon,” “In a Bamboo Grove,” “Hell Screen,” “A Spider Thread” and “The Nose”–and rendered in an appealingly contemporary voice. Those who have read Rubin’s translations of Haruki Murakami’s work will likely feel themselves on familiar turf, as several of the stories share the mildly absurdist tone typical of much of Murakami’s short fiction.
Those already familiar with Akutagawa’s more celebrated works will find De Wolf’s Mandarins nearly as essential. The 15 stories include such important pieces as “Cogwheels,” an autobiographical work revealing the narrator’s troubled thoughts–Akutagawa would commit suicide not long after he wrote it at the age of 35; “The Death of a Disciple,” a tale of Christian martyrdom set in Nagasaki; and three stories never before published in English: “An Evening Conversation,” “An Enlightened Husband” and “Winter.”
The earliest of these three stories, “An Enlightened Husband,” first published in 1919, begins as the narrator runs into an acquaintance, Viscount Honda, at a museum in Ueno featuring an exhibition of Meiji era culture. His mind flooding with memories while viewing the exhibition’s ukiyo-e woodblock prints, Honda relates the story of an old friend named Miura, who marries for love but then finds his faith in the “supremacy of amour” shaken when his wife’s extramarital affair, which he has tolerated, is proven to be “impure.”
The story’s themes of idealism and disillusionment, as revealed in Miura’s comment, “I could wish for nothing more than to die for a childish dream in which I truly believed,” are echoed in “An Evening Conversation.” Published in 1922, the story drops in on a drunken conversation among six former university dormitory mates, now middle-aged, that escalates from gentle teasing into an alcohol-fueled rant on life and love. With his characteristic ironic sense of humor, Akutagawa comically deflates the value of philosophy at the story’s end.
“Winter,” one of Akutagawa’s last stories, completed only a month before his death, will likely remind readers of one of Franz Kafka’s bureaucratic nightmares. Set against a cold, gray winter landscape, the story concerns the narrator’s attempts to visit his cousin in prison, only to be made to wait for hours, with no assurances or explanations from the prison guards. Uncompromisingly grim, “Winter” is a story devoid of hope.
In contrast, “Mandarins,” the collection’s far more hopeful title story, published eight years earlier, ends with the disillusioned narrator’s life-affirming epiphany inspired by the sight of a young woman throwing mandarin oranges from a train.
During his short life, Akutagawa is believed to have completed about 100 short stories. Although many have been translated, a number of critics have complained about the quality of the English versions. Hopefully, the likes of De Wolf and Rubin will continue to improve the existing translations as well as introduce new Akutagawa stories to English readers.
(Sep. 7, 2007)