August 23, 2007


Mandarins. By Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. Translated by Charles De Wolf. Archipelago Press. $16.

      Equally insightful into the Japan of the 1920s and the universality of human experience, the short stories of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927) have attracted much honor within his native land: the Akutagawa Prize is Japan’s most important literary award, and it was a story by Akutagawa, “In the Grove,” that the great director Akira Kurosawa adapted into his film Rashomon. But Akutagawa’s short, deeply troubled life – he died at 35 from an overdose of barbiturates – is little known outside Japan, and his stories are also largely unacknowledged. Three of the 15 in Mandarins have never before been published in English: “An Evening Conversation,” “An Enlightened Husband” and “Winter.”

      Akutagawa’s stories are not for everyone, certainly not for everyone in the Occident, being in many ways bound up with Japanese customs and societal expectations. Yet they strike universal chords as well. The title tale here, for example, includes the sort of angst-ridden question that many other writers have asked with less elegance: “The train in the tunnel, this country girl, this newspaper laden with trivia – if they were not the very symbols of this unfathomable, ignoble, and tedious life of ours, what were they?” The story “At the Seashore,” far from beginning with sun and pleasure, opens with an ellipsis and a sentence at odds with what one normally expects in a beach tale: “…It went on raining.” In “An Evening Conversation,” men sit around discussing life, love and art in a format that (as Charles De Wolf explains in his notes) is part of a long Japanese tradition, but is also recognizably related to Victorian English stories set in men’s clubs (and sometimes expanded quite famously, as in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days). “Autumn” is a story about a woman’s literary talent, the ways in which her marriage to an uncaring husband damage her, and her eventual “tranquility of bleak resignation.” In “Winter,” the pressures of a conformist society and its effects on family relations are shown with a kind of cold simplicity. This story, which Akutagawa finished only a month before his death, has clear autobiographical elements, according to De Wolf – and so do a number of the others. But De Wolf, a professor at Keio University, wisely leaves this information for the back of the book, realizing that the stories must succeed or fail in English based on their ability to communicate across the years, across the miles, and across the decades.

      Many of them do so quite effectively. Others, more steeped in Japanese culture or minute descriptions of long-vanished elements of Japanese life, seem more exotic but of narrower interest. Yet all have familial elements to which modern readers can relate. “The Garden,” for example, may not be immediately clear when it mentions “the retired head of the family” and says, “To his eldest he had relinquished his rights as householder.” But within a few paragraphs, this family’s story has easy-to-understand elements: “At the end of the next spring, the second son absconded with money from his adoptive parents and ran off with a tavern maid. In the autumn, the wife of the eldest gave premature birth to a baby boy.” The ways in which the various individuals and families, all imperfect and flawed, try to get by as society changes around them, are the elements that give Akutagawa’s stories depth and continuing appeal – and perhaps, through this Archipelago Press edition, greater familiarity.

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