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. 

11 November 2012

My Prizes (Thomas Bernhard)

"My Prizes", translated by Carol Brown Janeway, in Gathering Evidence and My Prizes by Thomas Bernhard (Vintage International, 2011)

"Now is the time to stand firm, I thought, demonstrate my intransigence, courage, single-mindedness. I'm not going to go and meet them, I thought, just as (in the deepest sense of the word) they didn't meet me." The attitude--pure Thomas Bernhard--was unmistakable. There was pride, hardheadedness, combativeness. The novelist was about to receive the Grillparzer Prize from the podium but he went unrecognized by the prize administrators. No one at the front door received him and his aunt. So they just went in. The guests of honor had arrived. The musicians were in place. Everyone was seated. But he didn't budge from his seat. "Of course the ceremony didn't begin", Bernhard wrote. The ceremony couldn't begin. Bernhard had stood his ground. He had made up his mind. He would only come in front if the President of the Academy of Sciences would personally fetch him from his seat.

That offending and offensive spirit was what characterized the novelist's recounting of the prize ceremonies he attended in My Prizes: An Accounting (2009), a short volume which also appeared alongside his childhood memoirs (Gathering Evidence). If one deigned to give Bernhard a prize, one must give it on Bernhard's own terms. If one would believe him, he was participating in those nonsense ceremonies only for the prize money. But it was obvious that he also felt pride in receiving them, particularly for prizes honoring his early works (like the ones for his early novels Frost and The Lime Works). In these essays he was, as in his works of fiction, honest and frank, if a bit tactless. He was in his usual fighting form.

Herr Bernhard was receiving the prize for his play A Feast for Boris, said Hunger (the play that had been appallingly badly acted a year before by the Burgtheater company in the Academy Theater), and then, as if to embrace me, he opened his arms wide.... He shook my hand and gave me a so-called award certificate of a tastelessness, like every other award certificate I have ever received, that was beyond comparison.

The usual cantankerous Bernhard was also one who deplored the least sight of his country. It would not be the same Bernhard if the reader was not treated to his anti-nationalist rant.

I didn't like the town. It's cold and repulsive and if I hadn't had [Elisabeth] Borchers and my thoughts of the eight thousand marks [the prize money], I would probably have left again after the first hour. How I hate these medium-sized towns with their famous historical buildings by which their inhabitants allow themselves to be perverted their whole lives long. Churches and narrow alleys in which people vegetate, their minds turning more mindless all the time. Salzburg, Augsburg, Regensburg, Würzburg, I hate them all, because mindlessness has been kept warming over in them for hundreds of years.

Interestingly, the handful of short essays and speeches here would make for a good entry point to the novelist. There were incidents told here that would be exploited further in his fiction. The incident of his buying a decrepit house, for example, was also recounted in Yes. The infamous awarding ceremony in Wittgenstein's Nephew was also told in compact form here.

When Bernhard sat in a jury to award the Bremen Literature Prize (having won the previous one), he had made up his mind to vote for Canetti, only to be overruled by the other jurors.

I wanted to give Canetti the prize for Auto-da-Fé, the brilliant work of his youth which had been reissued a year before this jury met. Several times I said the word Canetti and each time the faces around the long table grimaced in a self-pitying sort of way. Many of the people at the table didn't even know who Canetti was, but among the few who did know about Canetti was one who suddenly said, after I had said Canetti again, but he's also a Jew. Then there was some murmuring, and Canetti landed under the table. I can still hear this phrase but he's also a Jew although I can't remember who at the table said it. But even today I often hear the phrase, it came from some really sinister quarter.

This display of anti-Semitism was unacceptable to Bernhard. What further inflamed him was the manner of the selection of the eventual winner (Hildesheimer). It was just as thoughtless and crude. Hildesheimer was chosen as the compromise winner if only because time was running out and "the smell of evening roast was already seeping through the double doors".

Who Hildesheimer really was, not one of them seemed to know.... The gentlemen stood up and went out into the dining room. The Jew Hildesheimer had won the prize. For me that was the point of the prize. I've never been able to keep quiet about it.

Bernhard couldn't take seriously any prize that was showered on him because the same standard that selected Hildesheimer for a winner could have been used to select him as a winner in the past and could at any time be used to select future winners. That was the pointless point of the prize for him.

But no prizes are an honor, I then said, the honor is perverse, there is no honor in the world. People talk about honor and it's all a dirty trick, just like all talk about any honor, I said. The state showers its working citizens with honors and showers them in reality with perversities and dirty tricks, I said.

But the height of Bernhard's adventure with prizes was his conferment of the Austrian State Prize for Literature, where the Minister walked out on him while he was still in the middle of his acceptance speech, not before hurling some curses his way. Reading the text of the winner's speech one would have an idea why the Minister walked out, and all his people after him:

Our era is feebleminded, the demonic in us a perpetual national prison in which the elements of stupidity and thoughtlessness have become a daily need. The state is a construct eternally on the verge of foundering, the people one that is endlessly condemned to infamy and feeblemindedness, life a state of hopelessness in every philosophy and which will end in universal madness.

Thomas Bernhard won the prestigious state prize and while delivering his speech he was shunned. Those statesmen must have lacked for a sense of humor.

A bibliography of Bernhard's writings can be found here.

The German Literature Month II is hosted by Caroline and Lizzy.