Wednesday, April 29, 2015
I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015.
Kappa – Akutagawa Ryunosuke
Akutagawa Ryunosuke 芥川 龍之介 was such an important writer in Japan that a major literary prize was named after him. Plus, his books have been frequently translated into English, as often as Kawabata, Mishima, and Tanizaki. Because his life story is little known to Western readers, however, the publishing company, Charles E. Tuttle Company, included in their edition a 35-page overview of his life and times by scholar G. H. Healey. Boldly crossing barriers between disciplines, literary critic Healey diagnoses Akutagawa as a sufferer of schizophrenia.
Akutagawa borrowed the kappa (河童, literally, river-child) from Japanese folklore. Roughly human in form, a kappa is a monster that frequents rivers and ponds, with reptilian skin that changes color like a chameleon. Japanese folklore is not for the squeamish, so I won’t provide details on how kappas kidnap, drink blood, rape, murder by drowning and steal our shirikodama (尻子玉), the ball that contains our soul, which is located up our anus. No wonder kappa are still portrayed on“No Swimming” signs in Japan.
This novel is an allegory. The setting is the land of the Kappa, which calls to mind Japan in the early 20th century. On one hand, the intellectuals freely read and discuss Goethe, Strindberg, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer. Artists and thinkers bicker about abstruse topics. On the other hand, the longer the narrator stays in the land of the kappa the more stern realities such as censorship and maintenance of class distinctions come to his attention. As for management-labor relations, workers who are terminated when their jobs are automated are killed for food. Reflecting the callous stance of the conservatives of our own day, a kappa philosopher says sympathy for the worker’s plight is “sheer sentimentality.” Still, this stomach-turning fact makes the narrator return to Japan, where he is incarcerated in a madhouse.
Readers into satires and utopias such as Gulliver’s Travels or Erehwon would probably like this. So would Japan buffs, into the psychological ructions caused by the modernization of Japan as evidenced in writers like Natsume Soseki and Dazai Osamu.