McNally Jackson in NYC is one of my favorite bookshops. If you’re interested in translations it’s a great place to browse for new authors. On my last visit, inspired by Yoka Ogawo’s Revenge, I headed straight for the Japanese shelf. What I discovered was a sweet little book by a publisher I’d never heard of: One Peace Books.
Established in 2006 One Peace Books focuses on Japanese graphic fiction. Visit their website and you’ll find a catalog filled with graphic novels, manga and Japanese literature. 3 Strange Tales by Ryunosuke Akutagawa is part of their Modern Japanese Classics series. Akutagawa is a legend in his home country, so much so that one of Japan’s top literary prizes is named after him. Born in 1892, he died in 1927 from an overdose.
(In order to provide a little context, consider that James Joyce’s Ulysses was published in 1922. The Sound & the Fury by William Faulkner in 1929. Virginia Woolf wrote Mrs. Dalloway in 1925. The four stories collected in 3 Strange Tales were originally published between 1914-1922, predating all three Western works).
The three main stories in the collection: Rashomon; A Christian Death; and Agni all have fairly standard, morality-driven plots that reminded me of the kinda of fiction found in magazines back when magazines still regularly published fiction. Rashomon stands out – a servant left alone and unemployed in a city decimated by disease. The description of the protagonist borders on the grotesque. He constantly fiddles “with an enormous pimple that had recently appeared on his right cheek…” Perhaps a symptom of the plague? Seeking shelter from the rain he climbs into the guard tower of the Rashomon Gate. What he finds when he reaches the top moves the story towards the macabre.
Whether because of Akutagawa’s writing or the translator’s art, Rashomon is surprisingly modern. It reads like the script for a graphic novel. The action lends itself to (might even be improved by) being divided into individual panels and illustrated.
The other two stories are entertaining, but not particularly ground-breaking. The monk in A Christian Death is the victim of libel, which leads to his martyrdom. In Agni a girl is enslaved by a witch. And while the prose is modern, it’s also awkward, and can be saccharine in tone.
In the darkened room, the Indian woman opened her magic tome on the desk, and began chanting a spell. Soon, exotic and ancient writings appeared, wavering, in the light of the burning incense. Elen, or rather Taeko, dressed in her Chinese clothes, sat in a chair before the woman. Had her letter reached Endo? She was sure that she had seen him outside, but what if she had been wrong? The very thought of it caused her knees to tremble. But if she showed her concern the woman would see through her plan to escape from the den of black magic. So she pressed her hands together to keep them from shaking and waited, breathlessly, for her chance to act out the possession.
The bonus story, In a Grove, is by far the best – and has me looking forward to reading more books by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. The narrative is divided into 7 parts; each told in the first person; each contributing a portion of information about the circumstance of a samurai’s murder. Akutagawa slowly let’s his story unfold from multiple perspectives – some eyewitnesses, some acquaintances, even the samurai’s wife – culminating in the testimony of the murdered man. Some of the narrators are unreliable, whether outright liars or just misinformed. The structure is unusual, the plot twists unexpected and the ending a surprise… one I enjoyed. And while the whole collection didn’t completely satisfy, it did pique my interest in other volumes in this Modern Japanese Classics series.
Publisher: One Peace Books, New York (2012)
ISBN: 978 1 935548 12 6