Mandarins: Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, page 1
Translated from the Japanese by Charles De Wolf
English translation and notes © 2007 Charles DeWolf
First Archipelago Books edition 2007
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced
or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior
written permission of the publisher.
232 Third Street, #AIII
Brooklyn, NY 11215
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Akutagawa, Ryūnosuke, 1892–1927.
Mandarins : stories / by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa ; translated from the
Japanese by Charles De Wolf.
ISBN 978-0-9778576-0-9 (alk. paper)
1. Akutagawa, Ryūnosuke, 1892–1927 – Translations into English.
I. De Wolf, Charles. II. Title.
Distributed by Consortium Book Sales and Distribution
Cover art: Reclining Nude, by Auguste Rodin 1919,
Musée Rodin, Paris.
This publication was made possible with support from Lannan
Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New
York State Council on the Arts, a state agency.
At the Seashore
An Evening Conversation
An Enlightened Husband
Kesa and Moritō
The Death of a Disciple
O’er a Withered Moor
The Life of a Fool
The Villa of the Black Crane
Evening was falling one cloud-covered winter’s day as I boarded a Tōkyō-bound train departing from Yokosuka. I found a seat in the corner of a second-class coach, sat down, and waited absentmindedly for the whistle. Oddly enough, I was the only passenger in the carriage, which even at that hour was already illuminated. Looking out through the window at the darkening platform, I could see that it too was strangely deserted, with not even well-wishers remaining. There was only a caged puppy, emitting every few moments a lonely whimper.
It was a scene that eerily matched my own mood. Like the looming snow clouds, an unspeakable fatigue and ennui lay heavily upon my mind. I sat with my hands deep in the pockets of my overcoat, too weary even to pull out the evening newspaper.
At length the whistle blew. Ever so slightly, my feeling of gloom was lifted, and I leaned my head back against the window frame, half-consciously watching for the station to recede slowly into the distance. But then I heard the clattering of dry-weather clogs coming from the ticket gate, followed immediately by the cursing of the conductor. The door of the second-class carriage was flung open, and a young teenage girl came bursting in.
At that moment, with a shudder, the train began to lumber slowly forward. The platform pillars, passing one by one, the water carts, as if left carelessly behind, a red-capped porter, calling out his thanks to someone aboard—all this, as though with wistful hesitancy, now fell through the soot that pressed against the windows and was gone.
Finally feeling at ease, I put a match to a cigarette and raised my languid eyes to look for the first time at the girl seated on the opposite side. She wore her lusterless hair in ginkgo-leaf style. Apparently from constant rubbing of her nose and mouth with the back of her hand, her cheeks were chapped and unpleasantly red. She was the epitome of a country girl.
A grimy woolen scarf of yellowish green hung loosely down to her knees, on which she held a large bundle wrapped in cloth. In those same chilblained hands she clutched for dear life a red third-class ticket.
I found her vulgar features quite displeasing and was further repelled by her dirty clothes. Adding to my irritation was the thought that the girl was too dimwitted to know the difference between second- and third-class tickets. If only to blot her existence from my mind, I took out my newspaper, unfolded it over my lap, and began to read, still smoking my cigarette.
All at once the light from outside was eclipsed by the electric illumination within; now the badly printed letters in some column or other stood out with a strange clarity. We had entered one of the Yokosuka Line’s many tunnels.
Yet the better lighting for my perusal of the pages was of no help in distracting me from my melancholy; instead I was only weighed down all the more by the myriad commonplace matters of the world: peace treaty issues, weddings, some sort of bribery scandal, death notices. For a moment after the train entered the tunnel, I had the illusion that we had somehow reversed direction, as my eyes moved almost mechanically from one tiresome article to another. At the same time, I was, despite myself, rather conscious of the girl sitting in front of me, as though she were the personification of coarse reality.
The train in the tunnel, this country girl, this newspaper laden with trivia—if they were not the very symbols of this unfathomable, ignoble, and tedious life of ours, what were they?
In disgust, I tossed aside the paper I had hardly read and again leaned my head against the window frame. My eyes closing as though I were dead, I began to doze.
Minutes later, I was startled from my half slumber and instinctively looked about me with a feeling of alarm. At some point the girl had come over to my side of the train and was now next to me, feverishly endeavoring to open the window, the glass apparently proving to be too heavy for her. At intervals, I could hear her sniffling and gasping, her chapped cheeks redder than ever.
All of this should have been enough to evoke some measure of sympathy, even in the likes of me. Yet surely she could have seen that the hillsides, their dry grass alone illuminated in the twilight, were moving inexorably closer toward the glass panes—and known that at any moment we would again be in darkness. Still, quite incomprehensibly to me, she continued her attempt to lower the closed window. I could only imagine it as sheer caprice and so inwardly nurtured my original malice. Gazing coldly at her desperate struggle as she fought with chilblained hands, I hoped that she would be forever doomed to fail.
Then, with an enormous groan, the train plunged into a tunnel, and at that very moment the window at last came down with a thud. A stream of soot-laden air came pouring in through the square opening. Instantly, the carriage was filled with a cloud of suffocating smoke. Already suffering from an impaired throat, I had not even the time to put a handkerchief to my face and was now coughing so violently that I could scarcely catch my breath. Yet the girl, without the slightest pretense of concern for my plight, had poked her head out of the window and was staring relentlessly ahead, her side-locks disheveled by the breeze sweeping through the darkness. When at last my cough had eased, I peered at the figure through the smoke-dimmed light and would surely have barked at this strange creature to shut the window, had it not been for the outside view, which now was growing ever brighter, and for the smell, borne in on the cold air, of earth, dry grass, and water.
Already the train was gently gliding out of the tunnel and approaching a crossing at an impoverished banlieue surrounded by withered hills. Near the road lay clumps of thatch- and tile-roofed houses, each shabbier than the next.
Quite involuntarily, I held my breath and knew immediately the meaning of it all. This girl, perhaps leaving home now to go into service as a maid or an apprentice, had been carrying in her bosom these oranges and tossed them to her younger brothers as a token of gratitude for coming to the crossing to see her off.
Everything I had seen beyond the window—the railway crossing bathed in evening light, the chirping voices of the children, and the dazzling color of the oranges raining down on them—had passed in a twinkling of an eye. Yet the scene had been vividly and poignantly burned into my mind, and from this, welling up within me, came a strangely bright and buoyant feeling.
Elated, I raised my head and gazed at the girl with very different eyes. Without my noticing when, she had resumed her place in front of me, her chapped cheeks buried as before in her woolen scarf of yellow-green. Again she held a large bundle on her lap, her hand still clutching a third-class ticket . . . And now for the first time I was able to forget, at least for a moment, my unspeakable fatigue, my ennui, and, with that, this unfathomable, ignoble, and tedious life.
AT THE SEASHORE
. . . It went on raining. We finished lunch and began talking about our friends in Tōkyō, turning many a Shikishima cigarette to ashes.
We were sitting in a two-room cottage of six tatami mats each. The windows, shaded by marsh-reed blinds, looked out on a yard where nothing grew—or rather nothing other than the seashore’s ubiquitous sedge, here in only scattered clumps on the sand, their spikes already drooping. Those spikes had not yet fully emerged when we first arrived, and the ones we saw then were for the most part bright green. Now they were all a vulpine brown, with drops of rain on their tips.
“Well now, I think I shall get a bit of work done.”
M was sprawled out on the mats, wiping his spectacles with the sleeve of the heavily starched yukata that belonged to the inn. The work to which he referred concerned the monthly contribution that each of us was obliged to write for our literary magazine.
He moved into the next room, while I used one of the floor cushions for a pillow and read Nansō-Satomi-Hakkenden. The day before I had reached the part where Shino, Genpachi, and Kobungo are going off to rescue Sōsuke.
Now Amazaki Terubumi reached into his bosom pocket and took out the five packets of gold dust he had prepared. Of these, he placed three on his fan and said: “Now, you three warrior dogs, each of these contains thirty ryō of gold, and though that is no great amount, I hope that it will be of use to you for the journey on which you are about to embark. Please deign to accept these, not as a parting token from me but rather as a gift from Lord Satomi.”
As I read this passage, I remembered the royalties I had received two days earlier for a manuscript: forty sen per page . . . In July, M and I had completed our university studies in English literature. Now we faced the task of finding a means to support ourselves. Gradually putting aside the eight dogs, I found myself considering the idea of becoming a teacher. But then it seemed I had fallen asleep and had the following brief dream:
It was, it appeared, quite late in the night. In any case, I was lying down alone in the sitting room, having closed the shutters. Someone had suddenly knocked, calling out to me: “Hello, hello?” I was aware that beyond the shutters there was a pond, but I had no idea who might be calling to me.
“Hello, hello? Please. I have something to ask of you,” I heard the voice saying. Hearing this, I thought to myself: Aha, it’s K. He was a class behind us, a hopeless student in the philosophy department. Without getting up, I replied in a strong voice:
“It’s no use putting on that plaintive tone for me. I suppose it’s about money again.”
“No, no, it’s not about that. I merely wish to present to you a woman of my acquaintance.”
Somehow it did not seem to be K’s voice after all. It was rather that of someone genuinely concerned about me. My heart pounding, I jumped up to open the shutters. There was indeed an immense pond below the veranda, but I found neither K nor anyone else there.
For some time I gazed at the moonlit pond. The flow of seaweed told me that the tide was coming in, and now there were wavelets sparkling silver immediately before my eyes. As they edged closer to my feet, a crucian carp slowly came into view, leisurely moving its tail and fins in the transparent water.
Ah, so it was the fish that was calling me, I thought to myself with a sense of relief . . .
When I awoke, the pale light of the sun was seeping through the reed blinds at the front of the cottage. I took a basin and went down to the well in back to wash my face. Yet even when I returned, the dream lingered curiously in my mind. A half-formed thought occurred to me: Then the crucian carp I saw in my dream is, in fact, my subliminal self!
An hour later we put on our swimming caps, wrapped towels around our heads, slipped on clogs on loan from the inn, and went off to swim in the ocean, some sixty meters away. Stepping off the veranda and walking through the garden, we descended the gentle slope and immediately found ourselves on the beach.
“Do you think we can swim?”
“It seems a bit chilly today.”
Even as we chattered of such things, we were at pains to avoid walking through the sedge. (We had already learned to our astonishment of the terrible itch in the calves that comes from carelessly walking through those rain-soaked weeds.) The coolness in the air did indeed preclude a dip. And yet we felt a wistful attachment to this beach in Kazusa—or rather to the waning summer.
During our first days here, there were boys and girls merrily riding the waves, and even until yesterday there had been seven or eight. Today, however, there was no one to be seen, and the red flags marking the swimming area were not flying. Now there were only the waves crashing endlessly against the vast seashore. Empty too were the reed enclosures that served as the changing area. There was only a brown dog chasing a swarm of gnats, and no sooner had we seen it than it had run off in the opposite direction.
I had taken off my clogs but was in no mood to swim. M, on the other hand, had already left his yukata and spectacles in the changing area, wrapped his towel over his swimming cap, tying the loose ends under his chin, and plunged into the shallows with a loud splash.
“You’re going to swim after all?”
“Well, isn’t that why we’re here?”
M was bent forward in the water, which came up to his knees. His smiling face, tanned with the sun, was turned toward me.
“Come on in!”
“No, thank you!”
“What? I dare say you would if Enzen the Charmer were here!”
The Charmer was a middle-school boy of fifteen or sixteen whom we had seen during our stay here and casually greeted. He was not a particularly beautiful lad; it was rather that he was possessed of a youthful freshness that made one think of a sapling tree. On an afternoon some ten days before, we had just come up from the water and thrown ourselves down on the hot sand when he arrived, likewise wet from the waves, briskly pulling behind him a plank. When he saw us lying there at his feet, he broadly smiled at us with a set of d
When he was gone, M gave me a wry grin and remarked:
“Now there’s one with the smile of a charmer!”1 And so, between us, he had acquired the name.
“So you’re determined not to come in?”
M got himself wetter and wetter and was now gliding out to sea. Paying no further heed to him, I walked to a low dune a slight distance from the changing place. Sitting on my clogs, I tried to light a Shikishima. The wind was stronger than I thought, and the flame did not easily reach the tip.
I had not seen M return, but there he was in the shallows. He was calling to me, but unfortunately my ears could not catch his words for the incessant roar of the waves.
“What is it?”
He came and sat beside me, his yukata draped over his shoulders.
“Oh, I was stung by a jellyfish.”
For the last several days, the jellyfish had seemed to be multiplying. In fact, the morning before last I had found myself covered with their pinprick marks, running from my left shoulder to my upper arm.
“On my neck. I was thinking, Oh, they’ve got me!—and then saw them all around.”
“That’s why I didn’t go in.”
“Fine talk coming from you! But now we’re finally done with swimming.”
The sun had bathed the shore, as far as the eye could see, in a white haze, obscuring all but the seaweed brought in on the tide. Only the shadow of a cloud would sometimes pass swiftly by. With cigarettes dangling from our lips, we paused to gaze in silence at the incoming waves.
“Have you been offered that teaching position?” asked M suddenly.
“Not yet. What about you?”
“I? I, well . . .”
As he started to speak, we were startled by laughter and the thud, thud, thud of footsteps. They belonged to two girls of similar age, in swimming suits and caps. They passed us with an indifference bordering on insolence, running straight toward the water. The suit of the one was scarlet, that of the other a tigerlike blend of black and yellow. Our eyes followed these happy, fleeting figures, as the two of us simultaneously found ourselves smiling, as though on cue.
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