Book Review

The Life of a Stupid Man by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

Photo on 21-11-2015 at 16.43.jpg

I read another one of those cute Penguin Little Black Classics, this one a collection of three short stories by the Japanese modernist Ryūnosuke Akutagawa.

I’ve never read anything by the writer before and, to be honest, I didn’t know his name. The renowned Japanese film Rashomon (which I haven’t seen) is based on two works by Akutagawa – one that shares its name, and another, ‘In a Bamboo Grove’, which this short collection begins with.

‘In a Bamboo Grove’ (also known as ‘In a Grove’) is a story about a sexual assault and murder, told from the perspectives of multiple people. We start with the man who found the dead man’s body, pull back to meet someone who saw the man and his wife before the death, we then meet someone who saw them with someone suspicious, we then learn the identity of the murderer and rapist before reading his confession, yet after this we hear the testimony of the dead man’s wife, who was assaulted by the murderer, then the story of the encounter from the perspective of the spirit of the dead man. All of these accounts differ in serious and significant ways: in one the men fight to the death, in another the murderee condemns his wife for being raped and she kills him, and in the third he kills himself in shame for not having protected her. It’s ten pages long, each account covering one of them and offering a circuitous and conflicting idea of the events that have happened and the place they happened it. It is modernism in very much the Mrs Dalloway school of thought, but tided over with a pre-Brechtian use of titles and labels. None of the narrators are reliable, and if we are meant to read each confession as an increasing of a perceived truth they offer no firm conclusion. The murderer’s confession is given under torture, the woman’s confession is given as a penitent in a temple, whilst the man’s testimony comes from beyond the grave, where surely truth is a far more objective thing than it is during the murk that is life? No two stories can both be true, and the bandit’s is self-aggrandising enough to be visibly false, but both those of the victims offer unfair readings of the other – both man and woman offer a confession where they condemn themselves and the other.

Is this part of the culture of Shame that I’m aware of being more significant in Japan than is the Westernised, Catholic culture of Guilt? The woman has been violated by a bandit and her husband – incapacitated – witnessed it and was, like her, unable to stop it. Both parties have had their weaknesses exposed in front of the other and as such hold the latter as witness and origin point of Shame. The man, dead, floats free of Guilt, but the wife – confessing in a temple – clearly embodies some notion of remembered and psychological pain. Is she shamed because she believes the criminal – who the reader knows to have been hanged – is still alive? Or is she guilty because – in her version of events – she killed her husband herself?

This story is incredibly easy to unpick and ask questions about, which shows a) how it would transform well into cinema and b) that it probably isn’t actually that complex. The form reflects the content, but the content is quite the basic modernist conceit regarding perceptions of reality and how no two experiences are alike. This, of course, would develop into a commonly used cultural trope, and this is certainly the most accessible version of multiple switches of perspectives that I’ve encountered in anything from the modernist period.

I don’t have the time to go into similar detail with the other two stories, so will unfortunately have to content myself with a paragraph on each.

The second story in here is called ‘Death Register’ and is, again, split into several sections, but each one from the same narrative perspective. The conceit here is that each of the first three short chapters recounts a significant death in the life of a singular person – both parents and a sibling who died young – before collating the contemplation of them together in a trip to the family grave spot. This offers brief, and almost Flaubertian, insight into several people’s lives. Grief of a child compared to grief of an adult; the aching importance of the first significant loss and the embarrassing acknowledgement that death should mean less each time one is exposed to it, but that in its bleak certainty and permanence it is irrevocable and certain, it is heavy and cold. Death is often a surprise but always an eventuality, and the continued awareness of it Life provides is never quite preparation enough for a true comprehension of its actuality. It’s a modernist short story about death, whaddevah.

The final story is the titular one, ‘The Life of a Stupid Man’, and in its preoccupations it is almost more accurate to categorise it as postmodern rather than modernist. The text is an autobiography, Akutagawa from the perspective of Akutagawa, but he is self-deprecating and self-effacing. It feels like it is autobiographical long before it is stated that it is, and in its focus on sexuality, regret, shame and repression it mirrors the interests of many texts from across the world during its period of composition. It is moving in its stories of romantic disappointment and alarming in its discussion of ennui and suicide attempts, particularly when its bored, tired and fatigued, empty, tone is made worse following the failure to complete the desired end to existence.

I enjoyed this collection, though I did learn that many of what I thought were the sentence-level quirks of Haruki Murakami were actually quirks of Jay Rubin, the translator of these pieces as well as the translator of many of Murakami’s works, including the colossi The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles and 1Q84. However, this was no great loss, for where these stories are interesting is in their structure, in their subject matter (combining the timeless with the contemporary) and in their impressive depth given how short they all are. I will, eventually, look up some more Akutagawa. But not today.

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