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There is always room for improvement; leave a comment tell me what you think. And please, be brutal. Nothing like being eviscerated by the general public (though in reality no one reads this so maybe not so general public).

09 4월, 2008

Brief, but Packs a Punch

Aphorism: A tersely phrased statement of a truth or opinion; an adage. (American Heritage Dictionary, online). Twice, the term "aphoristic style" is used to describe the works of author Akutagawa Ryunosuke, first by Murakami Haruki in writing the introduction to the collection, and again by translator Jay Rubin. It tells you how lousy my vocabulary is when, I am truly sorry to say (mum, dad forgive me!), the term totally escaped me.

Akutagawa was a short story writer from the early 20th century Japan, who's writing style varied from classical-style short stories in his early career to more introspective tales in his later life. One of Japan's most noted authors (indeed Murakami places him in the top 10 Japanese authors of all time) he penned pieces that captured the darker zeitgeist of the times, with themes that were often macabre but fantastically morbidly humorous as well. He lived a relatively short but fruitful life, having left behind a legacy of over 150 short stories when he committed suicide at the age of 35.

To be honest the only reason I picked up the book was the blaring title Rashomon emblazoned on the front. I first encountered Rashomon as a play performed my sophomore year in college and was immediately enthralled and fascinated by the point-of-view ambiguity of the tale, which was at the time quite reminiscent of the most important thing I learnt in psychology that year: time dilutes memories. It turns out that my now favorite Japanese director Akira Kurosawa had directed the film on which the play was based. As I just learnt a week ago, Kurosawa based the film on two short stories by Akutagawa; Rashomon from which the director took the title and the setting, and In the Bamboo Grove, from which the tale of four characters all describing the same event, each with their own version of the truth, evolves.

Akutagawa has this enviably marvellous gift with words: he is able, without much ado or fuss, to tell a complete story using the simplest of words. He creates a whole immersive world with meaning, texture and depth with such deft conciseness that is thoroughly complete with no extraneous fat or filler to bog down the story. Each story packed with little kernels of truth about human foibles, both real (including his own) and imagined, I almost felt bereft when the stories came to an end. Sharp and brutal in what can seem to be an appallingly lackadaisical manner, one sometimes gets the feeling he sees you---even though he is well and truly gone--- a little too well.

By far the best story in my opinion was Hell Screen. The tale of an arrogant court painter, Yoshihide, and his twisted relationship with the king he serves. For Yoshihide to complete a painted silk-screen for the king he requests that a woman be burnt alive. The passage that follows below absolutely exemplifies Yoshihide's character in such amazing form. The very picture of a man who's art reigns supreme in his heart above all else.

Yoshihide---who only a few moments had seemed to be suffering the torments
of hell---stood there with his arms locked across his chest as if he had even
forgotten the presence of His Lordship, his whole wrinkled face suffused now
with an inexplicable radiance---the radiance of religious ecstasy. I could have
sworn that the man's eyes were no longer watching [...] dying in agony, that
instead the gorgeous colours of flames and the sight of a woman suffering in
them were giving him joy beyond measure.

This collection runs the gamut of his career from his first story to his last, bringing many of his works to a Western audience for the first time and including some of his autobiographical pieces. It includes a lot of his well known stories as well as a few of his less obvious hits, but all 18 stories serve to give a well rounded picture of Akutagawa's stylistic brilliance.

Reading this collection of short stories makes me realise what an absolute Philistine I am, because the book serves to remind me what delineates true intellectual (not me) from the pseudo ones (I wouldn't even be able to qualify for that either). These stories, while easily digestible, invite the reader to reflect and revisit the tales (which I'm doing now). I can't say any more than go read it. I guess I should try and learn to be a tad less effusive and a bit pithier with my words, see if I can apply aphorism to my writing (that means I have to learn how to get rid of brackets like this one. Wish me luck...).

5 out of 5 If only I could be 1/100th as good!

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