Mandarins: Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (Archipelago)

mandarins Mandarins: Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Translated by Charles De Wolf (Archipelago Books)

As Basho hovers between life and death, his disciples perform the ritual act of brushing his lips with water, while their reactions to the poet’s passing range from revulsion to relief. A man prepares himself for his first murder, and the woman who is his conspirator readies herself for an unanticipated role in the killing the two have planned together. Young university graduates, on a seaside holiday before searching for jobs in Tokyo, watch young women fearlessly swimming among the jellyfish that have kept the students from plunging into the water. A saintly young man who is the protégé of Christian priests falls from grace and into penury, until an act of courage leads to his death, his redemption, and the revelation of the shadow world that he had made his own.

The characters in this collection of brief and haunting stories are poised between actions, where Ryunosuke Akutagawa examines them as though they were butterflies impaled on the pointed ends of pins. Each story is a carefully constructed world of sadness and a kind of hopeless beauty, which is precisely described in spare and graceful sentences. They linger and tease and disturb; they inhabit their readers in ways that are not always comfortable. They are quite possibly addictive.

The temptation to look at many of these stories as being an autobiographical glimpse of Akutagawa is great, especially since two of the most revealing, Cogwheels and The Life of a Fool, which explore the inner workingsof a tortured mind, both appeared just before he died of an overdose of veronal in 1927. What they do reveal is Akutagawa’s thoughts about his country after its rush from isolation to modernity, and in the beginning of its expansion before World War Two. The Garden, with its examination of tradition altered and destroyed, its “undeniable intimation of impending ruin,”clearly shows the author’s distaste for the changes that Japan went through during his lifetime.

Charles De Wolf’s notes at the conclusion of the book illuminate both the writer and his work, while cautioning in the afterword, “to relentlessly render factual—historical or biographical—what should be left as literary would surely spoil the story.”

It is certain, however, that these are stories that plunge fearlessly into the place that lies between sanity and madness, between tradition and modernity, between the past and the future. They capture the place that T.S. Eliot described, the spot where “between the motion and the act falls the shadow.” Written at the beginning of the last century, it is startling how they, and Akutagawa, speak to the time that we live in now.

(This review was first published by Rain Taxi and was written by Janet Brown.)