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Sushi With Akutagawa

Scott Pack, Buying Manager at Waterstone’s, writes about his discovery of Akutagawa’s Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories

Picture the scene.  I am at a dinner party in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Trays of sushi have just been delivered and I am attempting to eat with chopsticks without sending rice and fish flying across the room.  Alongside, politely trying to ignore my cack-handed grazing, are Haruki Murakami, Motoyuki Shibata and our host, Jay Rubin.
The conversation turns to Akutagawa, more specifically to the forthcoming collection being published by Penguin Classics.  I am surrounded by experts:  Rubin has translated the stories; Moto-san read Jay’s work and advised on the translations; Murakami has written the introduction.  I, it transpires, have never read a word of Akutagawa’s work.  I am not even sure I have seen Rashomon the movie.  I have definitely seen something with Toshiro Mifune in it which I think it was black and white, but it started with a Y.  I realise I have nothing to say on the subject but this is almost certainly a blessing as I have just stuffed my face with the largest piece of sushi outside of Japan and I suspect it may take me several hours to swallow it.
I do, for once, have an excuse for this lack of literary knowledge and, as far as I am concerned, it is a cast-iron one.  It has been almost impossible to read any of Akutagawa’s work in English, outside of the most famous stories, for years; decades even.  How can I have read any when there aren’t any to read? 
To my great pleasure, when I returned home those lovely people at Penguin sent me the page proofs of the collection and I was finally able to immerse myself in the dark wonders of this remarkable author.
Jay Rubin has very sensibly ordered the collection into four themed sections and, for a newcomer to Akutagawa, this is an extremely helpful way to navigate the work.
A World In Decay contains the title story and other pieces set in and around the Heian Period of Japanese history.  I, like any other new reader may be, was confused after reading Rashomon as it bore only a passing resemblance to the film that I was aware of (but which we have already established I haven’t actually seen).  My confusion was short lived however as the very next story, In A Bamboo Grove, was far more familiar and it transpires that Akira Kurosawa based his movie on a combination of these two stories.  I am glad I sorted that out.  This initial group of stories were the closest to what I had imagined the collection to be like and they do not disappoint in the least.  What I did not expect was the diversity that was to come.
Under The Sword takes us forward chronologically to the era of the Tokugawa Shoguns and the initial appearance of Christianity in Japan from Portuguese missionaries.  This is a period of Japanese history that is largely unfamiliar to me and the first story in this section, Dr. Ogata Ryosai: Memorandum, acts as an ideal primer to the religious conflicts of the period.  I found these stories fascinating from a historical context but they were perhaps the least entertaining from my armchair reader perspective.
Although well-observed with some moments of humour these first two sections are hardly a laugh a minute. Modern Tragicomedy, however, provides plenty of funny scenes and Rubin’s superb translation ensure that these work well for an English reader.  My favourite was Horse Legs which gives Kafka a run for his money and, for me, is the stand out story in the whole collection.  If you are in any doubt as to whether Akutagawa is for you then turn to this story first, you will not be disappointed.
But while the chuckles are still reverberating we hit the final section with quite a thud.  Akutagawa’s Own Story is made up of loosely autobiographical work and the theme of death rears it head frequently, both directly and indirectly, throughout these stories.  His troubled childhood is also a strong theme and Death Register pre-empts today’s appetite for misery memoirs with the wonderful, though troubling, first line ‘My mother was a madwoman’.  It would be wrong of me to cast too bleak a note over these stories though.  They are certainly uncomfortable reading in places but are wonderfully written and remarkably rewarding, allowing the reader an insight into the creative mind responsible for the previous 150 or so pages of stories.
Ryunosuke Akutagawa, like too many tortured artists, took his own life in 1927.  This knowledge makes the final section of stories all the more poignant and prophetic.  He was 35 years old, the same age I am now.
Rashomon And Seventeen Other Stories is a long overdue collection from a master of the short story form.  Anyone who is familiar with Haruki Murakami’s life and work will know that he has been inspired and influenced by American fiction, so for him to pen an introduction to a book by a Japanese author is a very big deal indeed and should ensure that we all sit up and listen, or rather: sit down and read.
So now I find myself grateful to Jay Rubin not only for his wonderful hospitality, great sushi and illustrious company but for bringing a giant of world literature to the public attention once again in this essential collection.  Anyone who reads this work will share that gratitude.