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.
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.