29 April 2012

Mandarins (stories by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke)

Mandarins, stories by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, trans. Charles De Wolf (Archipelago Books, 2007)

Mandarins was a substantial story collection by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (1892-1927), the Japanese grandmaster of short fiction. It showed that his sublime style did not end with "Rashōmon" and "In a Grove", the pair of signature stories that formed the basis of Kurosawa Akira's signature film. Even with the absence of these two famous stories, the fifteen stories comprising this collection had elegantly defined what 'rashomonesque' was all about.

The selection and translation by Charles De Wolf were beautifully accomplished. They revealed Akutagawa's preoccupations with themes centering on adultery, Christian legends, the decay of a generation, and suicide.

My favorite stories included "O'er a Withered Moor", about the impending death of the haiku poet Bashō, and the title story "Mandarins", which turned out to be referring not to Chinese personages at all. In the first story, the dying poet was surrounded by his disciples, each of whom was contemplating mortality and expressing his own grief in different ways. Each poet had a unique personality and distinctive individuality that colored his perception of this momentous event. Their various feelings almost mirrored the conflicting testimonies given by several witnesses to a crime in "In a Grove". The difference with this story was the way in which an omniscient narrator tended to interrupt the narrative to give his own subjective commentary and appraisal of what's happening. This narrator even had the temerity to interpret Bashō's farewell haiku containing the story's title: "Ill on a journey, / Wandering in fevered dreams / O'er a withered moor."

   None of this had the remotest bearing on the imminent death of his master, whose fate was now faithfully fulfilling what he had so often predicted in his verses, for truly he was now being left as a bleached corpse in a vast and desolate moor of humanity. His own disciples were not lamenting the death of their master but rather their own loss at his passing. They were not bewailing the piteous demise of their guide in the wilderness but rather their own abandonment here in the twilight.
   Yet as we humans are by nature coldhearted, of what use is it to offer moral reprobation? Lost in such world-weary thoughts, even as he exalted in his capacity to indulge in them, Shiko wetted the lips of his master and returned the plumed stick to the water bowl....

The title story was equally beguiling for its simplicity and compression. In a few pages the writer crafted the personal sensibility of an irritable and snobbish middle class train passenger.

   It was a scene that eerily matched my own mood. Like the looming snow clouds, an unspeakable fatigue and ennui lay heavily upon my mind. I sat with my hands deep in the pockets of my overcoat, too weary even to pull out the evening newspaper.
Akutagawa efficiently supplied images and sensations that supported the attitudes of this narrator, telling his story through brief snapshots:

The train in the tunnel, this country girl, this newspaper laden with trivia – if they were not the symbols of this unfathomable, ignoble, and tedious life of ours, what were they?

And then the writer supplied a final sequence of images that led the passenger to a (Joycean) epiphany that overturned his first impressions, and that allowed him to recognize how biases and prejudices could distort our worlds and that it is only through appreciation of kindness and love that we could live in peace.

   Everything I had seen beyond the window – the railway crossing bathed in evening light, the chirping voices of the children, and the dazzling color of the oranges raining down on them – had passed in the twinkling of an eye. Yet the scene had been vividly and poignantly burned in my mind, and from this, welling up within me, came a strangely bright and buoyant feeling.
   ... And now for the first time I was able to forget, at least for a moment, my unspeakable fatigue, my ennui, and, with that, this unfathomable, ignoble, and tedious life.

The concentration of trenchant images in this collection allowed for the characters to inhabit shifting states of feeling: from anxiety to serenity, from lust to resignation, from paranoia to ferocity. The latter feeling, that of fierceness or ferocity, of vulgarity and passion, may fully describe the elevated state of 'having deeply lived and loved' – in contrast to a life of pure intellect and culture – that lingers in the horizon of Akutagawa's artistic vision.

They understand Bashō; they understand Tostoy. They understand Ike no Taiga and Mushanokōji Saneatsu. They understand Karl Marx. Yet what is the result? Of fierce love, the joy of fierce creativity, or fierce moral passion they are ignorant. All in all, they know nothing of the sheer intensity of spirit that can render this world sublime. And if they are marked by a mortal wound, they surely also contain a pernicious poison. One of its properties is direct, enabling it to transform ordinary human beings into sophisticates; another works by way of reaction, making them all the more common. ["An Evening Conversation"]

More than the notions of moral subjectivity and relativism, that strong feeling perhaps came close to what was 'novel' in Akutagawa, to what was rashomonesque – the enunciation of what is human, what is intense, and what is poetic. Even if, in spite of the gray areas, the duality of sophistication and commonness persisted.

   "Oddly enough it is just when we think we have cast off our mere humanity that our all too human desires become all the more intense ..."
   "A man thought virtuous may also be a man of vice."
   "No, an opposition more striking than that between good and evil ..."
   "Well, then, the child found in the adult."
   "That's not it either. I cannot express the idea clearly ... Perhaps it is like two electric poles. They are antipodes that form a whole." ["The Life of a Fool"]

Antipodes that form a whole. Perhaps the closest formulation of the fluidity and opacity of the behavior of Akutagawa's characters.

The multiplicity of literary influences of Akutagawa was evident in this collection. It was as if his ink well was a melting pot of Eastern and Western letters. In "The Life of a Fool", several European names were dropped (Maupassant, Baudelaire, Strindberg, Ibsen, Shaw, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Flaubert). The fragmentary nature of this story, consisting of 51 numbered short passages, could even remind one of a streamlined The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa. Published posthumously (like Pessoa's Disquiet) three months after his death, "The Life of a Fool" documented a writer's dissembling. It had explicit references to suicide and thus was considered autobiographical. It also contained a reference to Tanizaki Jun'ichiro, an acquaintance of the writer, and Akutagawa's mentor Natsume Sensei [Sōseki]. In fact, several stories in Mandarins seemed to be haunted by the spiritual presence of Sōseki.

Mandarins contained well-researched and must-read translator's notes, glossary, and afterword. De Wolf's idiomatic translation, vocabulary, and diction seemed to have captured well Akutagawa's poetry. He seemed to have an intuition for words such that the Japanese writer came across as an English prose stylist.

   Even in those days, the view of the water in the evening may not have been worthy of comparison with the elegance of the more distant past, but something of the beauty that one sees in old woodblock prints remained. When on that evening too we rowed downstream past Manpachi and entered the Great River, we could see the parapet of Ryōgoku Bridge, arching above the waves that flickered in the faint mid-autumn twilight and against the sky, as though an immense black Chinese ink stroke had been brushed across it. The silhouettes of the traffic, horses and carriages soon faded into the vaporous mist, and now all that could be seen were the dots of reddish light from the passengers' lanterns, rapidly passing to and fro in the darkness like small winter cherries. ["An Enlightened Husband"]

Charles De Wolf, 66, considers Japan his home. He has also translated Tales of Days Gone By: A Selection from Konjaku Monogatari-shu (2003) and Isle of Dreams (2010) by Kezio Hino. He was an educator gifted with a facility for acquiring languages. He speaks German, French, Spanish, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Tagalog, Indonesian, Palauan, Greek, and Italian. In an interview with The Japan Times, he shared his discovery of and enthusiasm for Japanese literature. For him the appeal of Japanese literature was in "the subtlety with which the drama of human relations is described. I had tended to look to European and American literature for 'grand ideas.' I suppose I sometimes wanted an Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov-like character expounding in Japanese, but that's not, on the whole, what Japanese literature is about." His multilingual background has served him well in Mandarins, which was replete with linguistic references.

A version of the story "An Enlightened Husband" is online at The Brooklyn Rail.


  1. Akutagawa Ryūnosuke is a writer I want to explore more, having read Rashomon & 17 other tales, making this of interest that for bringing to my attention.

  2. I remember you talking about buying this collection, and I'd definitely like to add it to my J-Lit library at some point. You make it sound like a must-read :)

  3. Gary, it's unmissable for Akutagawa followers. Only the last 2 stories overlap with Rubin's Penguin translation.

    Tony, yes, I bought it after you posted your review. Just the push I need. I was also planning to read the Rubin translation at some point in time.