13 November 2012

3 Strange Tales (Akutagawa Ryūnosuke)

3 Strange Tales by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, translated by Glenn Anderson (One Peace Books, 2012)

I met the couple yesterday, a little past noon. The breeze blew through and pulled back the silk scarf draped over the woman and I saw her face for just a moment. It was just a second, because then I couldn't see it anymore. Maybe that was the reason, I'm not sure, but she looked like she'd fallen from heaven and I made up my mind then and there to steal her away, even if it meant killing the man.
The speaker, the notorious bandit Tajomaru, was confessing to the crime. All he needed was just a second to decide that he will commit a crime. He wasn't sure what compelled him to do it. He thought it was the breeze momentarily revealing the face of a woman. Maybe that was the reason, I'm not sure. But he made up his mind there and then. Later, he explained:

But you didn't see her face. You didn't see the way her eyes burned when she said it. When I saw her face, let God strike me dead, I had to have her for my wife. I had to have her—that was the only thought in my head.

The actions of Akutagawa Ryūnosuke's characters are strange. They are rash, impulsive. They are strange because they went unexplained. Or the explanation was insufficient—You didn't see her face. The characters decide things rather quickly, without regard for the consequences of their acts. They—in a word—snap.

The moment I stood the man kicked me to the ground, and it was just then that I saw the glint—it's hard to describe it, but there was a glint in my husband's eyes. I don't know how to describe it, but just the memory of it sends shivers down my spine.

The woman's testimony, contradicting the bandit's, was equally strange. She knew what she had seen—a glint—and was terrified of it. There was uncertainty on her part (it's hard to describe it ...
I don't know how to describe it) but she nonetheless left an indelible image—a glint—that will be very hard to forget.

These passages were taken from the popular story of Akutagawa Ryūnosuke called "In a Grove". The last story from the recent translation 3 Strange Tales. It was in fact the fourth story, a "bonus story" after the first three. The inexact number of stories in the title may be fitting, given the set of unreliable narrators in "In a Grove" whose testimonies regarding what happened on the day a man was killed were (oddly) at odds with each other.

All four stories were unified by the passionate intensity of the characters. Their prevailing mood shifted from a brooding atmosphere to acts of extreme violence. The characters were impulsive, highly sensitive, slaves to their feelings. Their violent deeds were executed with no fuss. They had a short fuse.

In moments of desperation, they were, moreover, not quite themselves. They seemed to be possessed by somebody else. Here was the murdered victim of "In a Grove", his testimony spoken through a medium, no less.

The grove was silent, or I thought it was. Straining my ears in the quiet, I could just make out the sound of someone crying. Soon I discovered that it was only my own quiet sobs that filled the clearing.

Yet another kind of possession was at work in the third story, "Agni", which appeared here in translation for the very first time. The story was about an Indian woman, a witch, who kidnapped a young girl which she forcefully used as the medium for Agni, a powerful Indian god who could tell the future. The witch was notorious as a fortune teller; she was selling Agni's prophecies to rich buyers. At the start of the tale, a man called on the witch to ask when Japan and America will go to war. A possession was scheduled at midnight so the woman could give the answer in the morning.

With the help of a man who was searching for the girl, the girl hatched a plan to escape the witch. She would pretend a false possession by Agni right before she went to sleep. As Agni, she would then command the witch to immediately return her to her father or else she'll be killed. Will the girl be able to pull it off? Will she be able to pretend being possessed before she went to sleep and became actually possessed by Agni? And, in that case, will she be able to convince the witch?

This "possession", a kind of wholesale transformation of a character's attitude or being, was an essential device for Akutagawa. The transformation may be brought about by an actual possession, or it may be compelled by extreme events and circumstances, but the result was the same. A character was changed into someone else.

The other two stories in the slim collection—"Rashomon" and "A Christian Death"—were widely anthologized. They also closely followed the framework of unpredictability brought about by the characters' sudden emotional outbursts and violent actions. They captured the strange territory of the rashomonesque, the relativity of good and evil. But this time, the stories unfolded within apocalyptic settings.

"Rashomon" was set in the declining city of Kyoto in the aftermath of disasters: earthquakes, typhoons, fires, and famines. A servant, newly dismissed by his master, was contemplating the surrounding wasteland below the gate of Rashomon. It was raining and he was trapped. The moral decay around him was essential to understanding the moral choice he made at the end of the story, while confronting an old woman in a tower. The choice—his conviction—suddenly came to him, as if it possessed him.

As he listened he was gripped by a new conviction, one that worked on him in precisely the opposite way than his earlier ruminations on evil had when he leapt into the tower and grappled with the woman. It was the very conviction that he had lacked when he sat under the gate.

The servant had been profoundly troubled when confronted with a choice between death and a life of crime. But now—now, the very concept of starvation had left him entirely.

"A Christian Death", a fictional account of an event in Nagasaki sometime in the late 16th century, was also concerned about moral choices. With the same economy of detail in the other stories, Akutagawa sketched a story of Christian missionaries faced with a moral crisis. A young boy they adopted and grew very fond of was accused of impregnating a girl in the neighborhood. He was expelled from the church. The tale culminated with an apocalyptic fire, an event that became a testing ground for the faith of all involved characters and the veritable stage for Akutagawa's successive unfolding of revelations, as unpredictable as they were incredible. (And here I would like to make a conjecture that the Brazilian novelist João Guimarães Rosa had read and was inspired by this particular Akutagawa story in the writing of his grand novel Grande Sertão: Veredas. But that is perhaps for another post.)

The translations, by Glenn Anderson, sounded simple and conversational. Here are comparisons of passages from the one story that overlapped with Mandarins (2007), translated by Charles De Wolf.

"The Death of a Disciple", De Wolf (2007)"A Christian Death", Anderson (2012)
Moreover, in the stillness of the night he would stealthily leave his outcast's hut and tread the light of the moon to the beloved church and there pray that the Lord Jesus might watch over him.Every night, after the town had gone to sleep, he snuck out from his hovel and, under the light of the moon, approached the familiar grounds of the Santa Lucia and prayed fervently for the blessings of Jesus the Christ.
No border guardsman, as the proverb tells us, can halt the passage of time. One should imagine how within a twinkling of an eye, a year had come and gone. Then there was in Nagasaki a conflagration that in one night destroyed half of the city. So terrifying was the spectacle that the hair of those who witnessed it stood on end, for they might well have believed that they had heard the trumpet of the Last Judgment thundering across the fiery sky.Time waits for no man. A year had passed when the unexpected occurred. An enormous fire overtook Nagasaki, threatening to burn half of the town to the ground. The sky was dyed the color of flame, and the shrieking of the hissing wood shot over the town like the crack of a trumpet, signalling the end times.
But what of it? That which is most precious in a human life is indeed found in such an irreplaceable moment of ecstasy. To hurl a single wave into a void of depravity, as dark as a nocturnal sea, and capture in the foam the light of a not-yet-risen moon ... It is such a life that is worth living. But that is no matter, for the magnificence of a person's life is condensed into the singular moment when their spirit reaches its pinnacle of expression. A man will make his life worth living when he tosses a wave into the darkest night, breaking through the firmament of human desire that stretches over the sea, and captures in its foam the light of the moon yet to rise.

De Wolf's diction I find circumspect and measured, Anderson's straightforward and simplified. A case can be made for any of the two versions. In any case, the three (plus one) intense stories in 3 Strange Tales are a perfect sampler of Akutagawa, the acknowledged "father of the Japanese short story".

I received a review copy of the book from the publisher. 


  1. Hmm, I found the Anderson *very* straight-forward (and decidedly suspect...). Only four stories? The Penguin one has seventeen, including two of the four here...

  2. P.S. I'll be publishing the sign-up post for 'January in Japan' tomorrow - on a new blog :) Watch Twitter/My blog for details...

  3. Yep, Tony, just 4 stories. I think the Penguin has the most number of Akutagawa stories in one volume. Mandarins by Archipelago has 15. There's an old collection I read that has 6. I think this book is packaged as a quick sampler. Readers who want to get a more thorough overview of the writer should get the Penguin and/or the Archipelago.

    Consider me signed up for J in J! One great reason for the world not to end in 2012.

    1. I'll put your name down - and if you were interested in submitting a guest post too, details are here...


  4. I've the penguin one (posted on it)In the grove" is the story most people will recognise, as it's the main influence of Akira Kurosawa film "Rashomon, although my favourite from that edition was probably Green Onions. Not read A christian Death, but it sounds similar territory to that covered by Endo, so has appeal.

  5. The Anderson does seem very straightforward and more accessible, but it makes me wonder whether he authentically captured Akutagawa's voice, whereas DeWolf's translation feels as if he might have been more faithful to the author.

    I find Jap lit so contrasting from extreme aggression to the very subdued, but they all have a "light" quality about them. (Though I haven't read any Akutagawa yet.)

    (P.S. It's a bit difficult to comment here, no option for self-hosted site, which means I need to log on to my old WordPress account each time.)

  6. Gary, the story did resemble the Christian background of Endo's Silence.

    Claire, that's a good point. Anderson's version appears more terse while De Wolf's leans toward elegance. The last paragraph of the story actually points to the desired fictional approach of the story, which is something "simple and elegant" (De Wolf) or "simple and refined" (Anderson). But how to strike the balance between the two? Each version I think stand on its own.

    1. P.S. The last phrase in the story should read:

      "simple elegance of the original" (De Wolf)
      "simple, refined style" (Anderson)

  7. P.S. I've adjusted the comment settings for the time being.

  8. Nothing to do with Akutagawa, but to do with your interest in translation this concerns the poet & translator George Seferis & his views on translation....
    Seferis on translation.


  9. There's also the rather mammoth collection The Beautiful and Grotesque which I think is a reissue of an earlier collection, I've read a few mixed reviews of it, but looks like it would be well worth checking out. Thanks for this review!.

  10. Thanks, me. I saw there are 16 stories in that collection. Quite sizeable indeed. One for the wishlist, regardless of the mixed reviews.