My second read (actually third in order read but second I review) for Dolce Belezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 12 was the fifth installment in the Penguin Modern series.
Despite its short length, this slim volume is packed with three short stories which are very different from one another, each one representative of a different aspect of Japanese literature at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, all translated by Jay Rubin.
The first story, ‘Behind the Prison’ by Nagai Kafu, is a lyrical monologue written in the form of a letter the protagonist writes to his Excellency. The story is filled with beautiful descriptions of nature, as well as musings on the traditional culture of Japan and its being ‘tainted’ by the Western beliefs. Although he’s one of the most famous classic Japanese writers, I had never read any of Kafu’s works before and I fell madly in love with his prose and use of language (or, at least, its English translation that I read).
The second story, ‘Closet LLB’ by Uno Koji, recounts the tale of a man who loved literature and the arts but ended up studying law, only to discover that this profession is no more lucrative than his literary passion would have been, as he ends up living in a closet. The story is written in the very typical satyrical style of Uno, in the form of a fairy tale or fable, but with very realistic and not at all ideal situations. Although merely 18 pages long, this story manages to raise issues that still plague all of us today, such as being stuck in a job that doesn’t satisfy the individual and what a happy life constitutes of.
The third and final story is ‘General Kim’ by Akutagawa Ryunosuke, one of my favourite Japanese authors. This is the shortest of the three stories included in this volume, and yet I feel its message and impact is equally powerful as in the other two. It recounts the story of General Kim, a Korean soldier, and how he ends up saving his country from the ‘evil Japanese’. The story is told as a fable, as a piece taken from a mythology book, filled with fantastic elements such as decapitated bodies that still move, flying swords and all this nice stuff. At the very end, Akutagawa, with obvious irony, gives us his critique of such stories, claiming that history is filled with tales of triumph for the winners, however silly and laughable they might actually be.
Overall, I really enjoyed this collection. These stories might not be the best starting point for getting acquainted with these authors, but I think they were diverse enough to appeal to people of different tastes.