In Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s stories, the subjectivity of perception is often dramatized. His principal subjects—the gap between society and self; the conflict between tradition and modernity, religion and enlightenment—are transformed via various renderings. Mandarins, his latest collection, features fifteen tales, including three new English translations. In the title story, a man’s spell of apathy and ennui is momentarily broken when he witnesses the young peasant woman he’s been observing on a train throwing mandarins, “the color of the warm sun” and a symbol of Japanese daily life and hope, out the window to her brothers as they bid her permanent farewell. Spontaneous acts become antidotes to everyday banality, and a “sheer intensity of spirit . . . renders the world sublime.”
But the heart of the book is its preoccupation with literature and philosophy as a subject and mode of existence. Reading is both atmosphere and plot device—a way for the characters to examine intellectual history and engage in its latest incarnations. Akutagawa’s protagonists are almost always male writers who, through their writing and homosocial metasampling of recurring texts, forge relationships and creative alliances, leaving the question of the body and its desires in limbo or on the hypothetical page. This mind-body binary is also configured as a West-East conundrum, for the influx of Western philosophy and the changing social mores of the liberal Taisho democracy (1912–26), when Akutagawa was writing, become the lens through which to examine the increasingly composite nature of Japanese existence.
In “The Handkerchief,” a Tokyo law professor married to an American woman studies Strindberg’s Dramaturgy and Wilde’s De Profundis by the light of a Gifu lantern. The traditional Japanese light on the imported Western texts becomes a metaphor for cultural delineation and exchange. For while the professor imbibes the European canon, his wife favors all things emblematic of old Japan. “The Life of a Fool,” a lengthy opus on alienation and death, is equally an exercise in the broadness of personal confession via the autobiographical trajectories of other texts, namely Rousseau’s Confessions and Goethe’s Dichtung und Wahrheit, which are cited and arranged as philosophical scaffolding on which to build not just a new style of Japanese writing but a new theory of being.
However, this cultural expansion and intellectual immersion offer little relief. Instead, Akutagawa’s protagonists feel even more alienated and encumbered by what they see as the impermeable unknown. A postmodern dilemma of sorts, the vast possibilities of knowledge and interpretation make the world only harder to decode. The book ends not just on a figurative and psychological note of uncertainty but with the subsection “Defeat”: “There could be no doubt: he was being tormented by the fin-de-siècle demons. He envied the people of medieval times, who could entrust themselves to the power of God.” Though trained as pragmatists to match the new wave of Western thought, where multiple points of view signify modernity and cultural sophistication, Akutagawa’s characters spend their days in “spiritual twilight,” locked in the solitary confinement of their thoughts.