Forthcoming in June The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories is edited by Jay Rubin and introduced by Murakami Haruki and amongst their new series of Penguin Modern's, each a £1, we have a sampler in Three Japanese Short Stories of what is to come. The book contains, Behind the Prison by Nagai Kafu, Closet LLB by Uno Koji and General Kim by Akutagawa Ryunosuke all of which are translated by Jay Rubin. So I thought I'd read each of the stories here in anticipation of the full book's arrival in June, post on each of the stories featured, then pass Three Japanese Short Stories on as a giveaway once finished, so if you are interested in getting a copy leave a comment and I'll pick a name at random at the end and post out to you.
Behind the Prison by Nagai Kafu is the first story here, and although brief offers a lot to contemplate, it displays a number of preoccupations that are familiar with Kafu's writing, the narrator has recently returned from being abroad, characters and places from America and Paris are mentioned, perhaps this could be seen as a continuum of his American Stories translated by Mitsuko Iriye. There's the impression that the narrator is from a well to do family, toward the end of the story in order to escape the confines of the family home the narrator walks the neighbourhood and relates the views of the detritus of daily life in what he sees as the down at heels area. Briefly he contrasts the neighbourhood from the one of his memory, this theme it could be said is a major one of the story, contrasting the culture of the one experienced from abroad with that of the one he finds on his return, one that it is hinted at displays phony patriotism and advancement, this too is subtly contrasted with the living conditions of those within the immediate neighbourhood.
The title of the story has an openness to it's interpretation, as the family home or the narrator's father's estate is situated behind the prison at Ichigaya, and rather than being the return of the prodigal son the situation has the air of being problematic, for the meanwhile he can stay in a spare room, this undeclared state of affairs brokers a sense of imprisonment for the narrator and there's the sense he identifies with the prisoners seen outside performing communal tasks, there's the sense that with this return come's an impasse in his next direction. Rather enigmatically there is the option that the store is epistolary in nature as it's addressed to 'My dearest Excellency' and it ends on the plea of a visit as the narrator is lonely. As well as this the end of the story returns again to this sense of imprisonment with the relating of a piece of prison verse from Verlaine's Sagesse which speaks of a wound of love remaining open, which gives the impression of a portal opened, a transition, the narrator lodged between continents and memories of each, with disdain pointed at home, the scene of the salesman selling fish guts from the neighbourhood the narrator observes - 'the thought that this faded, cold fish meat is the only source of nourishment for the blood of most of my countrymen fills me with an inexpressible sorrow.'
The story feels a mixture of real experience and projecture on behalf of Kafu and there are things commonly associated with his writing, the narrator appears to be a troubled aesthete, characters from the theatre are mentioned, a scene here of animal cruelty observed stands out, another demarcation of the cultural differences between East and West. Behind the Prison is a fascinating and engaging opening story to these three, the next being Uno Koji's Closet LLB, as mentioned at the start I'll read the stories and then offer Three Japanese Stories as a giveaway, if interested please leave a comment.
Three Japanese Stories - Akutagawa and Others at Penguin Books