Magpie and Magnolia


Today’s post is showing a picture of Ohara Koson (小原古邨 1877ー1945). This time it is an azure-winged magpie on a magnolia tree. The blossoms are white and pink, which represents youth and innocence. The bird is a beautiful yet common bird in Japan. They are called onaga, meaning long-tail (cyanopica cyanus). Koson painted it approximately in 1931.

Book Review: The Ruined Map by Abe Kôbô

ruinedmap“The City — a bounded infinity. A labyrinth where you are never lost. Your private map where every block bears exactly the same number. Even if you lose your way, you cannot go wrong” – Abe Kôbô (1924-1993).

The Ruined Map by Abe Kôbô is a very mysterious detective story. It’s setting is in 1967 in a big Japanese city like Tokyo.

Nemuro Hiroshi, age 34, is missing for half a year. His wife has hired a detective after the police could not find him. There are no hints of her husband’s whereabouts, only a matchbox of the Camilla coffeehouse.
The husband had left no notice, but disappeared in the landscape of the big city. He should have been on a business meeting, but his wife does not know any specifics about it.

The detective has no clue whatsoever. His investigation gets stuck and wherever he is turning to, there is no answer. Even the wife is no help, but has obviously a drinking problem. So there are many scenes, when the detective is sitting with her in her dining room looking at a blinding yellow curtain, watching her drinking one beer after another. The case becomes so annoying to the detective after a while: He then himself mistrusts his client, doubting if there even is a real case. But then, there is also her mysterious brother or is he her lover? He is the only person, who seems to have some kind of information about Nemuro Hiroshi.

On the other hand investigations at the company are fruitful: a co-worker of the husband hands over a hand-drawn map, which the missing man could have used for his last appointment in duty of the company. After that encounter the detective meets also the brother of the missing person’s wife. From now on the story gets into a wild ride, where the brother ends up dead, but Nemuro Hiroshi is still missing without a trace.

The atmosphere of the story is Kafkaesque and during reading I somehow lost the track. I could not lay the book down, because I wanted to know the end. I realized in the latter half of the story, that  everything dissolves  in the end without a logical solution.  I cannot say, that I enjoyed the reading fully through the book, but Abe Kôbô kept me interested finishing my reading.

Abe Kôbô is a well-known author in Japan. He was a main representative of the literary avant-garde in the 60’s of the 20th century. He wrote many books using surreal content structure and elements on the basis of his philosophical thoughts. Often it is not easy to read. One of his most famous works is Woman in the Dunes, but The Box Man and The Face of Another is also noteworthy.

安部 公房. 燃えつきた地図. 1967. Abe Kôbô: The Ruined Map. 1967. Translated by E. Dale Saunders.

Book Review: Rashômon and Seventeen Other Stories by Akutagawa Ryûnosuke

rashomonThis is a fabulous selection of Akutagawa‘s stories from his early years until his later work period including his classics and some little known works. The stories are selected and translated by Jay Rubin and the book comes with an introduction by Murakami Haruki.

Akutagawa Ryûnosuke 芥川龍之介 (1892-1927) is one of the most influential Japanese writer and was even praised during his lifetime by his contemporaries. The young Akutagawa was encouraged by Natsume Sôseki 夏目 漱石 (1867-1916) and became an idol for many Japanese authors until today. Murakami Haruki admires him since his early schooldays.

Akutagawa has written mainly short stories, a genre very popular in Japanese literature. His first stories include mainly historical themes. Rashômon and In a Bamboo Grove are rewritten folktales of the 12th and 13th century. These were made into the well-known movie Rashômon by Kurosawa Akira in 1950.

Apart from that The Nose and Hell Screen are remarkable historical tales, outstandingly and thrillingly narrated by Akutagawa. Then there are some of his tragicomedies in this collection like Under The Sword, where a samurai suffering from migraine makes a deadly mistake with his sword. In Horse Legs the reader gets to know, how a man lives with two horse‘s legs.

Akutagawa‘s early stories of his own imagination are vivid psychograms. He read a lot and was influenced by Western authors as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Strindberg and others, which can be seen in his works.

His later semi-auto-biographical stories are very moving and astonishingly well-observed. Especially Daidôji Shinsuke: The Early Years, The Life of a Stupid Man and Spinning Gears. Akutagawa writes here about his own family background, behaviors and manners, inner struggles and personal stories.

Akutagawa was strongly influenced by the mental illness of his mother, who became mad shortly after his birth. She was living in the same house with him, but was not able to raise her son. Constantly under psychic pressure he became sick himself and permanently feared to get mad. Akutaga killed himself by an overdose of Veronal at the age of 35. His death shocked the whole nation.

His stories are outstanding until today, combining Japanese topics and symbolism of several historical episodes, rewritten for the modern reader. Furthermore his short stories of later years give a lively insight to his suffering and daily life and can be seen as unique documents of his life.

Many of his works have been translated into English and are available in various compilations, but this book is a good starting point and gives an overview of the work of Akutagawa Ryûnosuke.

Rashômon and Seventeen Other Stories by Akutagawa Ryûnosuke, Penguin Classics 2006.