Jan 31, 2007

Dragon in the Grove, Kappa in the Madhouse

Do you like literary modernism? Of course you do! Who doesn't? So, you'll love hearing all about Ryunosuke Akutagawa!
I've always felt like I sort of had to read Akutagawa- "Rashomon" is an idiom as much as it is a title of a story, so I've felt somewhat compelled to read the original story. Also, "Ryunosuke" means "Dragon's son." How cool is that?
Now, just to clear things up a bit- the Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon is adapted from two of Akutagawa's stories. The story called Rashomon furnishes the film's setting, but the bit about conflicting accounts of the same episode is actually from the story In a Bamboo Grove.
So, a few quick bits about some individual stories that I particularly liked.
Rashomon itself is a nasty little story. I can't really describe it, as it is quite short and any descriptions would necessarily entail spoilers. Nevertheless, the effect is a cold spike of cynicism. "There is nothing positive in the world," you think to yourself after a few pages.
In a Baboo Grove (or just In a Grove, depending on how it's translated) is the story with the famous plot about multiple viewpoints about a rape and murder. The phrase "in a grove" is apparently an idiom in Japanese meaning that something is unknowable or uncertain. Personally, after reviewing the facts of the story, I actually trust one of the characters more than the others. But, the fact that various people have told contradictory things to a magistrate who is trying to pursue truth still gets the story's point across.
Dragon is another story all about perceptions and belief, this one adapted from an old Chinese story. Dragon begins with the idea that beliefs can be easily suggested in a populace, and ends with the contention that individuals can be just as easily be fooled. In it's own way, it's much dodgier and more distrubing than In a Bamboo Grove. Grove suggests that truth is hard to grasp, but Dragon tells us that truth can disintigrate under pressure.
Hell Screen also plays with truth, but in a more meta-textual way. One of the nifty gimmicks of the story is that it's told in the first person by a narrator who disbelieves a rather important plot point. However, it's quite apparent to the reader what is actually going on.
In Green Onions Akutagawa writes himself into a story in a way that Vonnegut would be proud of. The premise is that he's sitting in a cafe, has a deadline, and is pounding out a story (the story Green Onions) very, very quickly. He dives into the story and even goes so far as to essentially say "blah blah blah, these characters are stereotypes, you get the idea" to the reader. So, he jumps in to remind the reader that the story is just a story, and impresses us that he's just writing it to fulfill a deadline. But, he does it all with a great sense of humor. Green Onions is pretty funny in a book-y smirk-y sort of way. You know what I mean- Dave Eggers starting a book on the cover rather than inside. That sort of book-y smirk-y way. It's awesome.
Horse Legs is another story about deception, but this one is quite funny. It begins with a snafu in the beauracracy of the afterlife, and continues on with a man being reborn with literal horse's legs. He goes to great legnths to conceal his supposed deformity, with funny and sad results.
And then, there's Kappa.
Akutagwa seems to have had quite the fondness for the creatures, as he would often doodle them in the margins of his notebooks. The picture that I've included here is one of his several Kappa drawings.
"Swiftian" is the best sort of word, I think, one can use to describe Kappa. An unnamed man one day meets one of the creatures, and, following it, finds himself in the vast underground world of the Kappas. Or maybe he just imagines it. Kappa's framing story is that the man is reporting his narrative from an asylum, so he could very well be imagining it. Akutagawa, of course, is ambiguous about it.
Each short chapter of Kappa seems to be Akutagawa saying "I want to make fun of this now," as the narrator gives accounts of various facets of Kappa society such as religion, poetry, birth, music, law, economics, cannibalism, etc. Each aspect of Kappa society is, of course, alien or bizarre. For instance- early on his account of Kappa birthing pratices describes the father shouting as loud as he can into the birth canal, and asking the fetus if it really, really wants to be born. Whereupon, the fetus gives its answer, and if it says "no," is aborted. The whole book is like that- short little weird bits. It's amusing, strange, and awesome.

Funny coincidence- there's a chain bookstore in town with quite the selection of English (and French and German and Chinese) books. I've spent far too much time and money there, as foreign language books are a bit expensive here in Nihon. But, I'm hopelessly addicted to books, and they actually have a real English selection. I was actually able to get a copy of the most recent Nonrequired Reading, while other shops seem to just have lots of paperback mysteries and Harry Potter. Anyway, as I was walking out of this place one day I noticed the name on my receipt- Maruzen.
Maruzen was the name of the Tokyo bookstore where Akutagawa was constantly a fixture, and where he acquired many of his foreign language books. The place in town is run by the same company. Neat, that.
Anyway, I thought this was a cool coincidence because while I was reading Akutagawa's stories and finding out a bit about his biographical information, I formed a picture of him as a really cool guy. Obviously, he was brilliant, and his sense of humor that shows through in Green Onions, Horse Legs, and Kappa is of the sort that appeals to me. I also quite like the "gimmicks" that Akutagawa tends to use- playing with perspectives, truth, beliefs, etc., as well as his use of supernatural and fantastic elements. I wasn't very surprised, though, to find that this was something he was widely criticised for in his lifetime.
When Akutagawa was writing, the most accepted form of Japanese literature was the autobiographical novel, i.e., authors talking about their own lives, inner demons, emotions, etc. in a confessional style. Akutagwa did write a few stories like this towards the end of his life, but there were only two, The Writer's Craft and Spinning Gears, that I thought were as good as his other stories.
Akutagawa, however, was writing fiction. And, not only was it fiction, it was weird fiction. Fiction with gimmicks, monsters, and historical stuff. He was often criticised as needing a "hook" to work- a hook like a said gimmick, historical setting, or monster. The critical perception was basically that Akutagawa was good, but it was in spite of the fact that he was not conforming to the accepted literary standards of the autobiographical novel.
As someone who believes in the potential merits of all literary genres and media, this sort of strikes a chord with me. I read a rather infuriating New York Times piece a while back talking about how the film Children of Men was very good, and therefore not science fiction (it is SF- in fact, a sterling example thereof). We seem to still be in the same place as the critics who didn't get Akutagawa- we still have this backward thinking idea that literary or artistic merit is inextricable entwined with genre and conventions rather than with the actual form and ideas of a work.
But, I digress.
Anyway, Akutagawa was a bit of a literary non-conformist, as well as a journalist, editor, translator, and collector of ghost stories. So, it's quite sad that he commited suicide.
He killed himself with an overdoes of veronal, the same drug that fellow modernist Virginia Woolf had attempted to end her life with. The best evidence seems to suggest that Akutagawa suffered from untreated chronic depression and probably (also like Virginia Woolf) from schitzophrenia as well.
Neverthelss, there's something quite dispiriting about knowing that a figure you admire killed themselves. Sometimes, it's like any enjoyment you get from their work is negated- you may like Hemingway, but as great as his stuff is, it didn't stop him from hanging himself. Or, enjoying their work turns into a sort of voyerism- when I listen to Elliot Smith now I can't help but think "he really means it- he's so damn sad he stabbed himself in the end." The point is, that an artist's suicide always leaves a bit of a tinge on their work. At least for me- I can't help but think about the context of a given thing when I consume it.
So, as funny, interesting, and clever as all of Akutagawa's stories are, there's a bit of a pall on them. I keep wanting to shout at him "stop hating yourself! Stop it! You're awesome! Put down the veronal and write more funny stories!" Ah, well.
Apparently a good portion of Akutagawa's stories have not been translated into English. Someone needs to fix that. Or I need to learn more Japanese. One or the other.
Next up- the Odyssey. Also, Natsume Soseki is not a cat.


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Anonymous said...

Hi, I just started reading the Rashomon collection, Green Onions specifically. Amazing. I am reading and rereading Borges somewhat systematically, and noticed he wrote a revue of Kappa. It's in the Selected Non-Fictions volume of Viking. And Kappa will be my next book.

Anyway, I certainly hope you do try translating some of the unavailable stories. Absurd situation.