If you research Ryunosuke Akutagawa on the web, you’ll find numerous references to him being the “father of the Japanese short story”, in fact my edition of “Mandarins” says that in the back cover. Akutagawa was raised by his uncle as his mother had gone mad only a few months after his birth, in 1892. This event was to haunt him throughout his life, the fear of insanity. Only living 35 years, to have produced hundreds of short stories, before his suicide from a barbiturates overdose, is an amazing achievement. Akutagawa’s most well known story is Rashomon , primarily due to Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 successful movie of the same name, the film is in fact based on two of Akutagawa ‘s stories, “Rashomon” (for the setting) and “In A Bamboo Grove” (for the characters and the plot). Both of these stories as well as later works by Akutagawa, where his fear of madness comes to the fore, can be read in the Penguin Classics “Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories”.
I chose the Archipelago Books “Mandarins”, not to avoid the more well known tales, but as a supporter of independent publishing (especially in translation) I thought this would make a more appropriate read.
“Mandarins” contains fifteen stories as well as a detailed notes section, which explains the connection to the traditional Japanese tales as well as giving detail on the text.
The title story is about our protagonist making a train journey and observing a girl “I found her vulgar features quite displeasing and was further repelled by her dirty clothes” , his repulsion slowly growing before she opens a window and tosses “five or six mandarin oranges, radiating the color of the warm sun” to three “red-cheeked boys”. All of a sudden our narrator understands “the meaning of it all”. The notes tell us that the mandarins represent daily life in Tokyo and the tedious travel, the abhorrence at daily existence, but suddenly elation can take over with a simple activity.
One of my favourite stories from the collection was “Kesa andMorito” two soliloquies, Morito lamenting his despising ofKesa who he once loved but now just uses as a mistress, even though he has agreed to kill her husband. Kesa despising herself for allowing her affair with Moito to occur and for agreeing to the murder. A wonderful balance of the same taleof hatred, of lust, of fear, told by two different characters and with a horrific ending.
So the moon is out. There was a time when I could not wait for it to appear, but now this very brightness has become a dread omen. I tremble at the thought that this night I shall lose my soul, that tomorrow I shall be a common murderer. How rightly the mind’s eye sees my hands already crimson with blood! How damned I shall soon seem even to myself! It would cause me no such anguish if I were to kill a detested foe. Yet tonight I must take the life of a man I do not hate.
Was it that I had been unable to bear the desolation of having seen my unsightly appearance revealed? In pressing my face to his breast, was I attempting in one moment of heated frenzy to dull the pain of it all? If not, was I, like him, simply driven by lewd desire? The merethought fill me with shame, with shame, with shame! What wretchedness I felt when, having been released from his arms, I was once again mistress of my own body!
With numerous references to Japanese mythology, religions and traditions, this is a great introduction to Japan at the turn of the twentieth century as well as giving you a solid grounding in the bygone eras, time with samurais, honourable suicide and more.
Another favourite tale was the structure of “An Enlightened Husband” where our narrator is visiting a museum “to see an exhibition of early Meiji-era culture” where he comes across Viscount Honda, the view the exhibition together whilst the Viscount tells a story. A story within a story.
We also have the passing of time through the stories “Autumn” and “Winter” – Autumn the story of a promising young female writer who gives up her work to marry, a tale of tranquillity, of desolation, of the end of an era. Winter telling a story of a cousin visit to prison and the long wait, the non understanding of the charges, the future, again desolation.
I was, naturally, beginning to feel hungry, but what was truly unendurable was the cold, for the room was quite without any sign of heating. As I continually stamped my feet, trying to keep my annoyance in check, I was surprised to observe that no one else in the crowd seemed perturbed. There was, for example, an apparent gambler, wearing two cotton-padded kimonos, who, instead of whiling away the time with a newspaper, slowly ate mandarins, one after another.
Like most Japanese literature that I’ve experienced in the last twelve months this is meticulously paced, not a word out of place, the imagery to the fore, the tales of shame, fear, isolation, desolation and the eternal existentialist struggle always to the fore. A great collection and one that I’m glad a publisher can bring to life in English, some lesser known stories but ones that capture the early 1900’s in Japan.
In the words of Haruki Murakami “The flow of his language is the best feature of Akutagawa’s style. Never stagnant, it moves along like a living thing…His choice of words is intuitive, natural – and beautiful.”