Mandarins is a collection of short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892 to 1927). The selection and translation of the stories was done by Charles De Wolf. Professor De Wolf of Kieo University has provided some excellent notes on each story and is best known for his translations of 12th century Japanese fables. These are the oldest Japanese works I have so far read. Each of the 15 stories in the collection completely stands alone. Both Borges and Murakami were devotees of his work. The longest story is thirty seven pages, the shortest, the title work, is five pages.
There is a similar persona in much of the narration of these stories. An aloof individual, normally a man but not always, very literate in western classics as well as Japanese, of a high social status who has difficulty relating either to working class Japanese or his peers who lack his degree of literacy. I have noticed the further one goes back in the 20th century Japanese novel, the more literary references occur to classical works as well as European. I am pretty sure there are close to no American or European novels prior to World War Two that make any references to Japanese literature. Akutagawa was said to have an extreme fondness for William Butler Years and Anatole France.
In order to convey the flavor of these stories, I will talk about two of them.
The lead story in the collection, "Mandarins" (1917-five pages) is set on a train and narrated by a nearly offensively snobbish and cultured man who is totally outraged when somehow a lower class country woman has gotten into the upper class seating area. Here is his shocked reaction when he awakes from a nap to see her sitting across from him.
She wore her lusterless hair in ginkgo leaf style. Apparently from constant rubbing of her nose and mouth with the back of her hand, her cheeks were chapped and unpleasantly red. She was the epitome of a country girl. A grimy woolen scarf of yellowish green hung loosely down to her knees, on which she held a large bundle wrapped in cloth. In those same chilblained hands she clutched for dear life a red third class ticket. I found her vulgar features quite displeasing and was further repelled by her dirty clothes. Adding to my irritation was the thought that this girl was to dimwitted to know the difference between first and third class tickets. If only to blot her existence from my mind. I took out my newspaper, unfolded it over my lap, and began to read, still smoking my cigarette.
A quite sharp picture of the character of the narrator and the situation he finds himself in on the train in shown above, shown not told.
The narrator is convinced all of life is futile, joyless and quite enjoys the pleasure of his own melancholy.
The train in the tunnel, this country girl, this newspaper laden with trivia-if they are not the very symbols of this unfathomable, ignoble, and tedious life of ours, what are they?
All of a sudden the narrator is shocked to see the country woman has moved over to his side of the train and is sitting next to him. She was trying very hard to open the window. Of course he is most annoyed by this
Glazing coldly at her desperate struggle as she fought with chilbained hands, I hoped that she would be forever doomed to fail.
The girl does at last get the window open and pokes her head out the window searching for something ahead. The narrator describes with complete disdain a rural village by the side of the road. He spots three boys standing with their arms reaching out.
three red-cheeked boys pressed up against one another, so small of stature that they seem to have been crushed by the sky, the color of their clothing as as drab as these urban outskirts.
As the boys see the woman, they let out cheer. The woman extends her ulcerated hands and begins swinging them briskly back and forth. The woman throws six mandarin oranges to the boys who are over joyed.
The narrator reevaluates everything.
Elated, I raised by head and glazed at the girl with very different eyes. She resumed her place in front of me...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.
In five pages Akutagawa develops for us a crystal clear picture of the narrator. We can see many things in this story. In part we see a man who up until the close of the story can experience the events of the world only as they are metaphors of his boredom. We can assume nothing will change long term in his outlook and this story will be another episode in his private mythology. For many writers this might be the beginning of the story. For Akutagawa it is the end. Maybe by doing that he frees us to continue the story.
"An Enlightened Husband" (1919, 23 pages) is a fascinating account of the wealthy cultured narrator's relationship with a far wealthier man, Viscount Honda.
On a cloudy afternoon, I had gone to a museum in Ueno to see an exhibition of early Meiji era culture..Slender, with an air of fragile elegance about him, he was dressed entirely in black, with neatly creased trousers and a stylish bowler. I immediately recognized him as Viscount Honda..I Started to approach him then momentarily hesitated for I had known before that he was a personality disinclined to social relations....In his hollow cheeks there lingered the last glimmerings of evening light, traces of the handsome features that had been his in the prime of youth. At the same time it was a face over which a pensive shadow fell, a reflection, unusual for a man of the aristocracy, of inner suffering.
They meet again and the Viscount extends an invitation to the narrator to go on a fishing trip with him. The narrator is very happy over this but he admits to being a bit intimidated by the social status of the Viscount Honda. The Viscount longs for the past days of Japanese culture, before westernization, before the automobile. The Viscount begins to tell a story of his marriage and his great love for his wife. One day, after he has met the wife, the narrator sees her riding in a carriage with a man who we discover is her cousin.
The Viscount is in love with the ideal of love almost as it were a Platonic ideal. When it is slowly revealed to us that their is an affair between the wife and the cousin, the narrator expects Honda to be outraged. He would be within his cultural rights to have them both killed and his social status would avoid any legal complication for him. Miura, the narrator has become on first name terms with the Viscount explains his feelings. The passage I will quote is bit long but it conveys with great precision the thought processes of The Viscount and Akutagawa's ability to go very deep in a brief passage.
Miura spoke in a subdued voice: "Even then I did not doubt my wife's sincerity. Thus the knowledge that she did not grasp my true feelings or rather that I had only earned her hatred caused me all the more anguish...About a week ago a maid carelessly allowed a letter that should have gone to my wife to find its way to my desk. I immediately thought of her cousin...it was a love missive from yet another man. In a word, her love for her cousin was no less impure. Needless to say, this second blow was of vastly more terrible intensity than the first. All my ideals had been ground to the dust. At the same time I was sadly comforted by the abrupt lessening of responsibility.
Akutagawa is able to convey a large range of superficially contradictory emotions and thoughts in a short passage. The story is very centered in a time and place. A great deal happens in a short narrative.
Mandarins is an excellent collection of short stories. Each one creates a miniature world. Akutagawa's works were all originally published in literary journals aimed at a highly educated, elite readership. You might have seen references on the back cover of some of your Japanese novels to winning the Akutagawa Prize. This was created in 1935 and has been given out twice a year since then to what the prize judges feel is the best work of the last six months. It is considered the most prestigious Japanese Literary Prize. Akutagawa died from an over dose of barbiturates at age 35.
As to my endorsement of the work, there can be no question that the stories are world class treasures. I would say in Japanese literature work your way back to the 1920s. I would start in the 21th century and work backwards from there. The further back one goes the least "popular" the works tend to be and some would say the drier. Snakes and Earring by Hitomi Kanehara and Real World by Natsuo Kirino have readers in the millions, Ryunosuke Akutagawa could hope for at best a few thousand readers in the 1920s.
I am happy to be reading this in conjunction with the Classics Circuit Meiji-era Japanese Classics Tour