Collections and anthologies form an important part of my private library of Japanese literature, and last year I knocked up a post showcasing nine that I had previously reviewed (as well as one that I still haven’t managed to finish…). However, there’s always more out there, and one commenter reminded me of a book I’d had my eye on for a while, but that I had never quite got around to buying. Well, we all know how that particular story ends, so today’s post aims to rectify my oversight and add another ‘chapter’ to my post on J-Lit collections 🙂
Autumn Wind and Other Stories is part of Tuttle Publishing’s extensive range of Japanese literature, and (like many of those books…) it seems to be out of print (UPDATE – 24/1/20: Apparently, there is a Kindle edition available for those, unlike me,who enjoy screen reading…). That’s a shame as it’s an excellent little collection, bringing together fourteen stories spanning sixty years of the twentieth century, most of which are highly entertaining. There’s also one slight difference to Autumn Wind compared to other collections, and that is down to all the stories being translated by the same person, Lane Dunlop. It’s an unusual move, but does it work? Well, more on that later.
With only fourteen stories, there isn’t room for all the writers you would expect to see featured here, but a few of the big names do make it. We begin with Nagai Kafu’s ‘The Fox’, a pleasing story looking at the writer’s childhood, spent in a big house with rambling grounds, with a particular focus on a fox that makes its appearance there. The story cleverly starts by quoting Turgenev and eventually makes its way back there, using the writer’s experiences to question his beliefs. It’s a charming piece, evocative of early twentieth-century Japan with its superstitions and imminent societal change.
Another of the better-known writers is Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, and ‘The Garden’ is his short tale of the decline, rebirth and new decline of a garden, and the family that owns it. Meanwhile, we have one of the two Japanese Nobel laureates (actually, the only one at time of publication!) in the form of Yasunari Kawabata’s ‘The Titmouse’. Surprisingly (for me), that’s actually a bird, and in this strange little story, the main character switches between obsessing over songbirds and cheating on his wife. So, standard fare, then…
Those were the only three writers I’d read books by, but having tried so many collections, I found several other familiar names here. Riichi Yokomitsu’s ‘Mount Hiei’ has a man returning to his Kansai roots as he takes his family to the top of the mountain and muses on his childhood, as well as on the mountain’s famous past. In a very different vein, Ton Satomi’s ‘Flash Storm’ sees us following a man to his friend’s house just as a storm hits. However, his friend is out, and he’s met by the wife – when suddenly the lights go out:
The guest tried to upbraid himself. But in the dark a series of sensual apparitions passed before him. As if it was stamped there, he felt the touch of the woman’s cold, wet palm on the back of his right hand.
‘Flash Storm’, pp.39/40 (Tuttle Publishing, 1994)
What follows is a light, sensual piece in which there’s some serious flirtation against the backdrop of the power cut and the raging tempest.
One name I always look out for in these books is Ango Sakaguchi, and his war-time piece, ‘One Woman and the War’, was one of my favourites here. The narrator is a young woman doing whatever it takes to make it through the destruction of Tokyo, getting strange enjoyment from the city’s turmoil:
But, if I were asked what about the night bombings was the most magnificent, truth to tell, my real feeling, more than anything else, was one of pleasure at the vastness of destruction. The dull silver B-29s too, as they suddenly hove into view amid the arrows of searchlights, were beautiful. And the antiaircraft guns spitting fire, the droning B29s that swam through the noise of the guns, and the incendiary bombs that burst in the sky like fireworks. But only the vast, world-destroying conflagration on the ground gave me complete satisfaction.
‘One Woman and the War’, pp.146/7
Given her experiences, the problem posed at the end of the story is slightly unexpected – how will she manage to cope if she actually makes it through the war?
One common feature of Japanese short-story collections is the inevitable gender imbalance, and Dunlop’s selection is no exception, with just three of the fourteen pieces written by women. While I wasn’t a fan of Fumiko Hayashi’s ‘Borneo Diamond’, a war-time piece featuring a woman far from home, Kanoko Okamoto’s lovely ‘Ivy Gates’, in which a writer describes the growing relationship between a childless maid and an orphaned schoolgirl, works far better. However, the most impressive of the three is Yumiko Kurahashi’s ‘Ugly Demons’, a story where a seventeen-year-old boy spends a summer struggling with the demons in his mind (and the willing body of his sixteen-year-old cousin…). It’s a more experimental piece than most of the other stories, and at times it seems almost dreamlike, with the line between action and thought often blurred.
I won’t go through all of the remaining stories, but there are two that definitely warrant a mention. The first is Morio Kita’s ‘Along the Mountain Ridge’, an eerie story in which a man hiking in the mountains encounters a seemingly suicidal climber who’s not what he seems. The other is Gishu Nakayama’s title piece ‘Autumn Wind’, set at a hot-spring resort, where a group of woodcutters strike up an unusual friendship with a low-class prostitute recovering from illness, bound by the knowledge that none of them are really welcome there. The protagonist is unwillingly forced to go to the men and suggest the woman’s removal from the resort:
But when Kyuhachi came to the part about Matsuko’s having to leave because of what the guests thought, the woodcutters’ expressions began to change. It was not overly pleasant for Kyuhachi as the blood drained from their sun-darkened faces, which took on a curious bluish-leaden color. Just when he thought they would start raving like animals, there was a strange silence in which he could not even hear them breathe. Hearing him out, they did not answer when he’d finished.
‘Autumn Wind’, p.123
‘Autumn Wind’ is an enjoyable story about class bonding and surprised expectations, and the tenderness shown by the seemingly aggressive young men eventually impresses Kyuhachi and the other guests.
As mentioned above, Dunlop is responsible for bringing all of the stories into English, and while that’s not unique (another example I’ve covered is the Korean collection, The Future of Silence, with all the stories translated by the team of Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton), it’s certainly unusual. There are a few times where certain preferences can be seen, such as in the placement of time and place phrases in sentences, but on the whole, the stories do have distinct voices. Certainly, ‘Ugly Demons’, ‘Flash Storm’ and ‘One Woman and the War’ stand out as stories that sound unlike the others. I do wonder, though, how some of the stories might have sounded in other translators’ hands…
I wouldn’t say Autumn Wind and Other Stories is the first place you should go for Japanese stories, but for thos who have tried the usual suspects, it makes for an excellent next step. One feature I particularly liked was the way each story has the title and writer’s name in both kanji and roman script, a lovely touch that will become compulsory once I’m ruler of the literary universe. Sadly, of course, there is one major issue for anyone who likes the sound of Dunlop’s collection – first, you’ve got to find a copy.
Good luck with that 😉