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Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927)

Translated from the Japanese by Ryan Choi

Art by Richard Schwamb

 
 

I

The other day I thought of an old friend. There’s no need to say his name. I remember he lived alone on the second floor of a printer’s shop in Hongō, where he moved after leaving his uncle’s home. Whenever the printer ran the rotary press below, the whole room would shake and rattle around us like the cabin of a steam-powered train. I was still a student at the First Higher School in those days, and had the habit of visiting my friend in his room after finishing my dinner at the dormitory. He was always at the window playing cards, his curiously slender neck craning forward over the table, the brass oil lamp hanging above his head casting a circular shadow around him.

 
 

We met as classmates in Honjo at the Third Middle School. At the time he was living with his uncle, just as he had for much of his life in the absence of his parents. Although his parents weren’t around, it seemed that his mother, at least, was alive somewhere but living a life of her own. From what I gathered, after his father’s presumptive death, his mother had soon remarried and started a new family. All the same, while lukewarm on the subject of his father, whose story I never did learn, my friend retained a boyish fondness for his missing mother.

One autumn evening, as I arrived at his second-floor room, my friend looked up from his cards and began talking excitedly.

“I heard my sister got married recently and moved into a new home. It’s strange, I barely remember having a sister when I was young, yet I can somehow see her face,” he said. “Are you free this Sunday to visit her with me?”

And so it was that I accompanied my friend to a small town on the outskirts of Kameido. It didn’t take us very long to locate his sister’s home. She was living behind a barbershop in a dilapidated tenement. Her husband was a worker at a local factory and was out during our visit. Besides his sister there was only her baby around, who both fussed and suckled at her breast. Even though my friend said his sister was younger than him, the girl before us appeared to be markedly older and didn’t resemble him at all, save for the extended outer edges of their eyes.

“Was the baby born this year?” my friend asked.

“He was born last year,” his sister said.

“So was the wedding last year too?”

“No, I got married two years ago. In March.”

Half-distractedly soothing the baby, his sister kept her manner friendly yet reserved, undeterred by my friend’s attempts to break the ice of her formal exterior. Sipping on my cup of bitter tea, I stared out the open kitchen door at the moss-covered wall, sensing the awkward and lonely rift between the estranged siblings.

“What kind of man is your husband?” my friend asked.

“Well, when he’s not working at the factory, he likes to read books.”

“Really? What kind of books does he read?”

“He likes to read old verse narratives. He sometimes recites them for me.”

Beneath the window, there was an old desk with a stack of books on it, which I presumed to be her husband’s verse collections. Unfortunately, I have no memory of the titles. All I can recall is the inkwell and its striking pair of peafowl quills.

“I think it’s about time we get going,” my friend said abruptly. “I’ll come and visit again someday. Give my regards to your husband when he’s home.”

“Oh, are you leaving already?”

With the baby still on her breast, his sister stood and saw us to the door.

“Tell everyone I said hello when you see them,” she said politely. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be a better host. And never mind this mess of shoes.”

It was almost sunset when we left and began walking home.

As we passed through Honjo on foot, I could tell that my friend was glum from his sister’s guarded reaction to his visit, like she was meeting a total stranger. But we spoke nothing of these feelings. Instead, he was running his fingers along the slatted bamboo fence that bordered one side of the sidewalk.

“When you do this really fast,” he said, “your fingers vibrate in a funny way, like there’s an electric current running through them.”

 
 

Upon graduating from the Third Middle School, my friend sat for the First Higher School entrance examinations but failed to get in. It was sometime after this that he moved to the room above the printer’s shop. And it was also around this time that he became a fervent apostle of Marx and Engels. I knew next to nothing about the social sciences, and at most harbored a certain fear—rather than reverence—of the idea of capitalist exploitation and Marxist rhetoric in general. Pouncing on this hesitancy of mine, my friend took to scolding me in the words of his idols at every chance, since the idols I declared above all were the trio of Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Baudelaire, who to him were mere peddlers of hash and opium dreams.

When I reflect back on it now, these debates of ours were far from serious debates, however seriously we attempted to refute one another. Our mutual friend, a medical student by the name of K, teased our chronic bickering.

“You two take yourselves too seriously. Why don’t we go out and have fun in Susaki?” he would say, laughing and eyeing us lecherously.

Deep down, I agreed with K and simply would have preferred to go to the pleasure quarter. But our friend, with his utopian snobbery (and even this doesn’t capture the breadth of it), was on principle opposed to the idea. Sometimes, as he puffed his Golden Bat cigarette, if he failed to ignore the words of K then he sought to embrace his crude turn of phrase.

“As they say,” he would declaim, “and you would know better than anyone, K, what is ‘revolution’ but the menstrual pains of a society?”

In July of the following year, my friend was accepted at the Sixth Higher School in Okayama, and within six months of his matriculation, he seemed to have found fresh contentment in his life. He wrote me letters all the time, updating me about his studies and social life (as well as the latest social science texts he read in his spare time). Although he appeared to be fine—or even better—on his own, his absence left a noticeable hole in my life. I continued to see K around the dormitory. We often spoke about our missing friend, whom K missed too, albeit differently from me. For K, it wasn’t so much the fellowship of argument as the clinical fascination with our friend as a human specimen.

“No matter how you cut it he’ll be a child forever,” K said one day, with his back to the window, deftly blowing rings of smoke from his Shikishima cigarette. “But there’s one thing I don’t understand about him. Don’t you think someone as beautiful as him would arouse at least some homoerotic feelings in you and me?”

When we were together, K ruminated aloud on matters such as these.

 

Not more than a year after entering the Sixth Higher School, my friend fell ill and was forced to return to the care of his uncle. The diagnosis was renal tuberculosis. I sometimes visited him in his room, bringing him a sack of his favorite biscuits. As we talked he sat on his bed hugging his bony knees to his chest. Despite the severity of his illness, he was surprisingly lively in spirits, and yet I couldn’t help but stare at the chamber pot in the corner of the room—it was made of glass, and always filled with his fulgent bloody urine.

“This body of mine is no good already. What’s the point of living in this prison?”

He laughed sardonically. “I look at Bakunin in his photographs and marvel at how robust some people are.”

While it seemed that my friend had no light left in his life, this wasn’t exactly the case, for his uncle had a younger daughter with whom my friend was—unexpectedly to me—deeply and painfully in love. Perhaps “unexpectedly” isn’t the right word. Being a young man myself and having glimpsed this cousin once or twice, I almost should have expected this infatuation from him. But ever the ennobled thinker, he had never spoken of these feelings until one overcast afternoon when he suddenly confessed his passion to me.

“Miyo is out with her school friends in Odawara today,” he said. “The other day I stumbled across her diary and read some of it by accident.”

I sneered at the word “accident,” but gave him a chance to explain.

“She’s been writing about this college student that she met on the train.”

“And?”

“I should warn her about going for a guy like that.”

I objected, “But what’s your rationale for that? Why is it okay for you to love her but wrong for her to love someone else? Isn’t that contradictory? I think because it’s your feelings that are involved you’re setting different rules.”

My friend was displeased with my reply but offered no defense of his position. I can’t remember what he said afterwards. I only remember my own feelings being hurt—from hurting the feelings of my very sick friend.

“I didn’t mean to lash out at you like that,” I said.

“Well I shouldn’t have said what I said.”

After nodding his head to himself, he clumsily changed the subject.

“The next time you visit, do you think you can bring me some books to read?”

“What do you want me to bring?”

“Something biographical. I was thinking I’d like to read about men of great achievement.”

“How about Jean-Christophe?”

“I suppose that’ll do. Anything is fine, as long as it’s entertaining.”

Later that day, when I returned to my dormitory in Yayoichō, my heart was heavy with dejection. I went into the study hall with the broken window and sat at a desk under one of the dim lamps. The study hall was completely empty. I began reviewing my German grammar for class but kept getting distracted by thoughts of my friend’s unrequited love for his cousin. Even if he was in a state of poor health and misery, in my own loneliness I was still overrun with envy for my friend, who had such a cousin as Miyo to love.

 

“There, in the palm of the dune, we talked about
everything in the world, more than we ever had before.”

 

About half a year later, my friend moved to a hospital on the coast for a change of air, though the conditions were hardly any better there, as he passed most of his time cooped up in bed. On my winter break, I traveled the long distance by train to visit him. His second-floor room received little sunlight and the wind whistled through the cracks in the walls. As before, when we talked he sat up in bed, hugging his bony knees to his chest. All things considered, he was in decent spirits. But unlike before, we spoke not a word of literature, or politics, or even the social sciences.

“Every time I look at that windmill palm,” he said, “I feel a strange pity for it. Look at how its leaves just flutter about.”

Outside the window, a windmill palm stood with its branches waving gently in the wind. While the leaves trembled slowly as a whole, their finely split ends shivered with rapid unrest—the perfect image, I thought, of our modern sense of the world’s transience. Out of regard for my bedridden friend, however, I made a conscious effort to be upbeat.

“Yes, I see what you’re saying. I wonder what ails the beachfront palm.”

“What do you mean?” my friend said humorlessly.

“I don’t know,” I said. “It just came to mind.”

“Well isn’t that a bore?”

As the day went on, I felt more and more oppressed.

“Did you end up reading Jean-Christophe?” I asked.

“Only parts of it,” he said.

“Do you think you’ll finish?”

“I don’t think I will. The book is too optimistic for me.”

I tried once again to raise the mood from the dead.

“So I heard K came to visit.”

“Yes, he stopped by on a day trip. He kept going on about vivisection.”

“How tactless of him.”

“What makes you say that?”

“No reason in particular.”

After dinner, the winds had calmed to a balmy pitch, and we decided to take a walk on the beach. It was after sunset, but slivers of light still drifted in the air. We sat next to a stout pine tree on the slopes of a great sand dune, watching as a group of marbled murrelets soared into the astral distance. There, in the palm of the dune, we talked about everything in the world, more than we ever had before.

At one point, my friend said, “Feel the surface of the sand, how cold it is. But then try dipping your hand inside.”

Just as he asked, I stuck my hand into the sand. It was as parched as sedge and the surface was cold, but inside, a wave of warmth leftover from the sun washed over and through my skin.

“It’s a peculiar feeling, isn’t it?” he said. “It’s night out, yet warm as day within. But wait—”

“Wow,” I said suddenly. “But now it feels as cold as ice.”

I don’t know why, but of all the things we spoke of that night, I only remember this one thing vividly, that and the sweeping black Pacific Ocean sitting fifty meters or so before our feet.

 
 

The following spring, after the Lunar New Year, news of my friend’s death reached me on a compact, black-bordered postcard from the hospital. According to what I read about his final night, the doctors and nurses had been up late playing cards to celebrate the Lunar New Year, and my friend, who had been unable to sleep because of the noise, sat up and began shouting at them, causing a massive hemorrhage in his lungs that killed him instantly. In thinking about his death, more than sadness, I felt keenly aware of the world’s fragility.

There was a note on the corner of the postcard which read, “Additionally, according to hospital policy, we were required to burn the books of the deceased along with his body and other belongings. We sincerely ask for your forgiveness if any of your items were included among these.”

I had the image of my books going up in smoke and flames, including the last book I had loaned my friend, the first volume of Jean-Christophe—a title now strangely symbolic of the sentimental person I had been in those days.

Six days later, I ran into K at the dormitory. Our conversation immediately turned to our friend.

“Do you think X died a virgin?” K asked, aloof as usual, smoking his cigarette.

“I wonder about that,” I said. “I couldn’t say.”

K stared at me suspiciously. “I suppose it doesn’t matter now anyway. Either way, now that X is dead, isn’t it hard not to feel like a winner in some way?”

I hesitated to reply, but before I could, K answered his own question.

“I know I do,” he said.

And from that day forth, I felt a certain unease in all my interactions with K.

 
 

II

He was a young man from Ireland. There’s no need to say his name. We were only the most casual of friends, even though his younger sister would say that I was her “brother’s best friend.” The first time I met him, I had the overwhelming feeling that I had seen his face somewhere before. Not only his face. Everything about the room we were in seemed familiar to me—the fire burning in the fireplace, the light from the bright red flames reflecting off the mahogany chairs, the complete works of Plato on the mantelpiece. As the evening progressed, the feeling of déjà vu became more intense, as did my certainty that I had lived through this exact scene five or six years before in a dream. However, during our long discussion about the writers of his home country, throughout which he chain-smoked his Shikishima cigarettes, not once did I mention to him these eerie feelings that confounded me.

“I detest Bernard Shaw.”

I remember how he said this and laughed with the utmost impunity.

This was the winter when we had turned twenty-five, according to the East Asian reckoning of age.

 
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Our financial situation in those days was such that we could go to teahouses and cafés as much as we pleased. But if I had to put a figure on it, I would say that my friend was thirty percent more manly about his money than me. One evening, we were sitting at a corner table at Café Paulista while a snowstorm raged outdoors. In the middle of the café was a gramophone that played a song in exchange for a five-sen coin. To my friend’s chagrin, the whole time we were there, the music was a constant pest on our conversation.

“Tell the waiter to shut off that damn machine. I’ll give him ten sen every time someone wants to put in another five.”

“I’m not telling him that. You tell him that,” I said. Not that I also wasn’t annoyed by the music. “Who are you to stop these people from paying for what they want to hear? That’s the point of the machine.”

“The point? People shouldn’t be able to pay to make others listen to what they don’t want to hear.”

At that moment, the merry song playing on the gramophone crackled to a stop, and then a boy in a hunting cap, who appeared to be a student, cheerfully popped up from his seat and went to feed a coin into the machine. My friend pouted in his chair, and no sooner did he shout “Goddamnit!” than he grabbed the cruet-stand on the table and made to chuck it at the boy.

“What are you doing? Put that thing down!”

I caught him by the wrist and pulled him out into the snowy outdoors.

Because we had no umbrellas, we began walking with our arms folded across our chests.

After a while, I said, “I don’t know about you, but on snowy nights like these, I often feel like taking long walks, as far as my legs will take me. But I—”

“Then why do you not do it?” my friend interrupted to scold me. “When I want to walk, I go walking.”

“That’s because you’re more the romantic than me.”

“Is being a romantic really so bad? If you want to walk but don’t go walking, doesn’t that make you a coward? Who cares if you freeze to death, my brother? If you want to walk, you should go walking.”

When he said “my brother,” the tone of his voice softened.

“Yesterday, I sent a telegram to the military recruitment office in my home country. I want to enlist.”

“And what did they say?”

“They haven’t replied.”

We stopped in front of the display window at the Christian Literature Society of Japan. The glass was half-pasted with snow, and inside a bright electric lamp illuminated a selection of anti-war literature and battlefield photographs of tanks and victims of poison gas. We stood there with our arms crossed, staring at the display.

Above the War—Romain Rolland…” I read.

“We’re not above anything,” my friend said disdainfully. Pursing his face, he looked like a rooster with its neck feathers ruffled. “Have you read Rolland? To me, we’re not above, but in the midst of war—always.”

I knew what he was hinting at, but I had no sympathy for his deep-seated anti-German hostility. An enmity toward his hawkishness suddenly arose in me. I was also drunk from the liquor at the café.

“I’m going home,” I said.

“Already? I was thinking we—”

“What? If you want to keep walking, you should walk. There’s lots of places to get lost around here.”

We were standing on Capital Bridge, our hands resting on the ornamental railings. There wasn’t a living creature in sight at this hour in Daikongashi—only a lone, dry willow draped in snow, its branches dangling over the still, black canal.

“For me, when I think of Japan, I think of scenery just like this.”

My friend said this philosophically before we parted ways.

 

Ultimately, my friend wasn’t able to fulfill his wish of joining the military. Eventually he moved to London, then a few years later he was back in Japan. By this point in my life, I had outgrown most of my youthful romantic beliefs, and my friend did too, but not by any means to the same degree. On my visit to the second-floor room at the boarding house where he was staying, he was dressed in an ostentatious kimono and an equally garish Ōshima overcoat. Holding his hands over a small charcoal brazier, he grumbled sourly, “Japan is becoming more like America every day. It’s terrible. Sometimes I think even France would be better than this.”

“That’s no surprise,” I said. “Disillusionment is the fate of the immigrant. Look at Lafcadio Hearn. All he did was complain about Japan during his last days.”

“I disagree. Disillusionment is impossible for me. You can’t be disillusioned if you have no illusions to begin with.”

“Aren’t you being a bit facetious? I’d be the first to admit to suffering from an illusion or two.”

“That might be so.”

He made a sulky face as he gazed through the window at the scrim of gray clouds.

“I forgot to mention, it looks like I’ll be going to Shanghai soon as a correspondent.”

I had to remind myself of my friend’s profession as a journalist, which I tended at times to forget, thinking of him foremost as one half of the artistic duo that we formed. But the truth was that he made a living as an English-language journalist. I imagined a stable crammed tight with slaving artists, with me among them, all unable to escape.

I tried to brighten the mood. “Shanghai should be interesting for you, especially if you’re bored of Tokyo.”

“I think so too. But I have to return to London before I go.”

He then opened a drawer in his desk and took out a tiny bamboo box with white velvet trim.

“Did I show you this?”

Inside the box was a delicate platinum ring. I held the ring in my palm and studied it. When I saw on the inside of the band an engraving that read “For Momoko,” I grinned at him.

“I ordered my name to be engraved below hers, but the jeweler must’ve made a mistake.”

I wondered if it was really a mistake, or if the jeweler had intentionally excluded his name—a foreigner’s name—to protect the woman’s honor. More than pity, I felt a kind of heartache for my friend, who seemed unbothered by the omission.

“So where have you been running about these days?”

“Yanagibashi, for the most part. I like it there because you can hear the sound of water everywhere.”

For a Tokyoite such as myself, these were strangely sorry words to hear. My friend’s face then lit up as he shifted the conversation to Japanese literature, a topic dear to his heart.

“I recently read Tanizaki’s novel The Devil. It’s probably the single filthiest book in the world.”

(Some months after this, I had the chance to talk with the author of The Devil. When I told him about my friend’s characterization of it, he laughed and said, “Best in the world at anything is good enough for me.”)

“What about Sōseki’s The Poppy?”

“That book is impossible for me. My Japanese isn’t advanced enough,” he said. “By the way, are you free to go out and eat?”

“Yes, I was hoping we could do that.”

“Give me a minute to get changed. There’s some magazines over there you can read while you wait.”

Whistling to himself, he began changing out of his kimono and into a set of Western clothes right in front of me—turning my back to him, I began flipping through a copy of Book Man magazine. During a break in his whistling, he gave a short laugh and said in Japanese, “I can sit with proper posture on the floor now. Just not in these Western pants.”

 
 

The last time I saw my friend was at a café in Shanghai. (Half a year later, he would die of smallpox.) We sat sipping our glasses of whiskey soda and staring at the women and men at the tables to our right and left. Excluding two or three Chinese, most of the customers were American or Russian. Among them was one woman, in a celadon-colored gown, who was speaking the most colorfully of everyone around. She was incredibly skinny but with a radiantly beautiful face that reminded me of Longquan ceramic glass. There was something unhealthy, however, about its appearance that bothered me.

“Who’s that woman?” I said.

“The one in the gown? She calls herself Nenie. I believe she was once an actress in France. But never mind her, look at this old man.”

The “old man” my friend was referring to was sitting next to us. He was cradling a glass of red wine in his hands and rocking his head to the music of the band. I didn’t find him objectionable in the least. He seemed to be the epitome of joie de vivre. I was more intrigued by the jazz blaring from between the tropical plants that lined the stage.

“He’s Jewish. I hear he’s been living in Shanghai for the last three decades. I wonder how he feels about this place.”

“Does it matter?”

“Yes, it matters to me. I’m sick of China already and I haven’t been here nearly as long.”

“You mean you’re sick of Shanghai. There’s more to China than Shanghai.”

“No, I do mean China. I’ve spent my fair share of time in Peking too.”

Then I alluded to his signature complaint. “Is China becoming too much like America for you?”

He shrugged his shoulders and silently looked away.

I regretted poking fun at him, and changed my approach to smooth the tension.

“Well, since you don’t like China, where do you see yourself living next?”

“It doesn’t matter. Everywhere turns out the same. I suppose right now the only place I might fancy is Soviet Russia.”

“So why don’t you move there? You can go anywhere you like with your job.”

And he went silent once again, and until this day I remember the face that he made—squinting his eyes dramatically, he recited a verse from the Man’yōshū that I hadn’t heard since my boyhood days.

Nothing but pain and disgrace in the world. But I cannot fly away, for I am not a bird.”

Smiling nostalgically at the bungled cadence of his Japanese, I found myself oddly moved.

“This old man, and even Nenie—they’re all happier than I can ever hope to be. After all, you know how it goes with me…”

“I know. You’re the Wandering Jew,” I said lightheartedly.

He finished his whiskey soda in one gulp, then returned to his normal combative self.

“No, I’m more complicated than that. I’m a poet, an artist, a critic, and a journalist. A son, an older brother, a bachelor, and an Irishman. I’m a romantic at heart, a realist in life, and a communist in politics.”

Sharing a laugh we stood, bumped our chairs aside, and headed for the doors.

“And, don’t forget, a lover of women,” I said.

“Indeed. And an atheist in religion, and a materialist in philosophy.”

Outside the streets were swaddled in a miasmic haze, shaded a portentous yellow from the glow of the streetlamps. We walked in long strides with our arms folded across our chests, just as we had on the streets of Japan at twenty-five years of age, except now I no longer had the urge to go on aimless walks in the snow.

“I don’t think I told you yet, about how I got my vocals professionally judged at an opera audition.”

“Here in Shanghai?”

“No, in London. You know what the verdict was? I have world-class baritone potential.”

He stared at me and smiled sarcastically.

“So journalism is not your field…”

“If I had pursued opera at a younger age, I could’ve been as good as Caruso. It’s too late for me now though.”

“That’s the loss of a lifetime, don’t you think?” I said ruefully.

“Only for the opera fans of the world. Not for me.”

As we walked along the bank of Huangpu River, ablaze with lights from the passing ships, my friend stopped and gestured with his chin toward the glittering waters—there, amidst the haze, was a dead white puppy floating limply on the waves. A single thatch tied with a flower was cinched around the puppy’s neck. I wondered who had arranged this scene, which, in that moment, struck me as both beautiful and cruel, not to mention that I was already in a sentimental mood from my friend’s recitation at the café.

“It’s like Nenie,” I said.

“Or the vocalist I was never to be.”

As soon as he said this, my friend was racked with a thunderous sneeze.

 
 

Perhaps it was the letter I had received, the first in a long time, from his younger sister in Nice. A few nights ago, I had a dream about my friend in which we were young and embroiled again in one of our classic conversations. The setting of the dream was just as it had been in real life when we had first met, with the light from the bright red flames of the fireplace reflecting off the mahogany chairs, although unlike back then, I was extremely fatigued as we discussed the Irish literature of the day. I had difficulty fighting off my drowsiness, and in my half-consciousness, I heard my friend utter those words in English, “I detest Bernard Shaw.”

And then, my eyes suddenly opened. I had fallen asleep sitting up in bed. It was still the middle of the night. The cloth-wrapped lamp glowed faintly on the table at my bedside. I rolled onto my stomach and lit a Shikishima cigarette to ease my nerves. Somehow, falling asleep in my dream only to wake up in reality gave me a spooky feeling, like I was standing on the edge of a cliff.

 
 


Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892–1927), born in Tokyo, Japan, was the author of more than 350 works of fiction and nonfiction, including Rashōmon, The Spider's Thread, Kappa, and In a Grove. Japan’s premier literary award for emerging writers, the Akutagawa Prize, is named after him.



Ryan Choi

Ryan Choi is the author of the forthcoming books Three Demons: A Study on Sanki Saito’s Haiku and In Dreams: The Very Short Works of Ryunosuke Akutagawa. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Harper’s, the Nation, the New Criterion, the New Republic, and elsewhere. Choi lives in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, where he was born and raised.



Richard Schwamb

Richard Schwamb, born in Santa Monica, California, lives and works in New York City. He attended UCLA and Art Center College in Los Angeles, and has exhibited at various locations around New York including ArtHelix, Fun, the Thermal Dynamic Reading Project at Tonic, and Jacobson Howard Gallery, where he participated in “Art Jam (Beautiful Burnout)”, a loose, international collaborative of members from Tomato, Underworld, and friends. His work has appeared in Idea Magazine (Japan) No. 337, “Tomato: Underworld ‘formgiving’,” a special issue by John Warwicker. His article “Fast Women” about Chicks on Speed (under the byline “William Tell”) appeared in ArtByte, July-August 2000.



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