The Moon over the Mountains: Stories by Atsushi Nakajima, translated by Paul McCarthy and Nobuko Ochner. Iowa City: Autumn Hill Books, 2011.
I confess that I had never heard of Atsushi Nakajima (1909-1942), but his name is well-known to Japanese who studied him in high school and who admire his distinctive prose style. Now his hour of glory has struck in the West, with his first book-length appearance in English, along with four volumes translated into French by Véronique Perrin.
Reading the title story, ‘Sangetsuki,’ with the elegant translations of McCarthy and Perrin to hand, I was tempted to compare Nakajima’s writing to the taut, lucid, authoritative style of Kleist. Others have compared him with Marcel Schwob and Borges. He may have gleaned something of the style of Kafka, whom he read in English.
His devotion to another master of style, Robert Louis Stevenson (also admired by Schwob and Borges), inspired the novel, Hikari to kaze to yume, which describes the Scottish writer’s last days in the South Seas. Masao Kume, a member of the Akutagawa Prize jury (which made no award that year), wanted to see this novel translated into English to win understanding for the Japanese in wartime. Perhaps Paul McCarthy could make this wish come true at last, facing the challenge of recomposing in Stevenson’s style the passages from his fictional journal.
After concluding the novel in the spring of 1941, Nakajima followed in Stevenson’s traces, working for the Japanese government in Palau. Returning to Toyko a year later, he succumbed to pneumonia in December 1942 at the age of 33. (The inside flap incorrectly states that he died in Palau.) Early death put the crowning touch to his literary profile, ensuring to his voice an indelible purity and
Nakajima has a devoted following in Japan, where his works are no doubt sedulously annotated. The present translators, though versed in Chinese lore, prefer to let the stories speak for themselves. Their helpful afterword indicates that Nakajima sticks closer to his Chinese sources than Akutagawa or Yasushi Inoue did. Selection and arrangement, style, and touches of modern psychology create his distinctive touch, along with his perpetual brooding on existential questions, ‘how one should find oneself, how one should live in an unjust world.’
The title story is about a poet who turns into a tiger. His transformation is inspired by Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: ‘I noticed that fur was beginning to sprout on my hands and elbows… I awoke to find my mouth smeared with blood and rabbit fur scattered about me.’ The climax is the tiger’s poem. ‘Tonight I gaze at the bright moon over the mountain./ Unable to sing an ode, I can only howl.’ The poem is in Chinese in the original, whether composed by Nakajima or borrowed from a Chinese source.
Three stories are set in the time of Confucius. ‘The Disciple’ threatens to be a mighty bore, as it tells of an unconditional admirer of the Chinese sage. But interest grows as the disciple chafes at the diplomatic, compromising behavior of his Master and his dismissal of someone so ‘forgetful of his station’ as to want to ‘rectify the wickedness of an entire country with his own petty person.’ Critical Americans, Russians, and Catholics may have food for thought here. The disciple dies a martyr and Confucius sheds tears.
In chronicling lurid misbehavior at Chinese courts Nakajima conveys a deep and disillusioned vision of political intrigue, human nature, and historical change. Perhaps his reading of Spinoza (in Latin with English translation) shaped this attitude. Very memorable are two destructive female characters, intensely imagined.
‘Li Ling,’ set in the first century BCE, tells of the punitive castration of a historian Sima Qian, whose art is described in a way that suggests Nakajima identifies with him. The humiliated historian resolves: ‘In order to continue to live, he had to convince himself that his person no longer existed.’ The story is also a quiet, indirect protest against the oppressive conditions in Japan at the time.
Nakajima’s last story, ‘The Master,’ is about an archer so perfectly steeped in the wisdom of emptiness that he no longer needs a bow and arrows, or even remembers what they were. This can be read as a sublime parable of Buddhist or Daoist insight, or as droll satire, or as a poised performance that cultivates undecidability between the alternative readings.
I must congratulate the translators on choosing to make this author known in the English-speaking world and I devoutly hope that they will give us several more volumes of his oeuvre.