Tiger-Poet – Atsushi Nakajima

“Tiger-Poet” (short story) by Atsushi Nakajima

English Publication History: Modern Japanese Stories: An Anthology (Charles E. Company, 1962)

Original: Japanese (山月記), 1942

Translated by Ivan Morris, 1962

Synopsis: Li Cheng passed the civil servant tests with much ease and was held in high regard. After quickly becoming promoted and gaining some experience, he felt that he was above the urbane drudgery and committed himself to writing; however, finally live hand-to-mouth, he reapplied for civil service at a disgracefully low position. The drudgery driving him mad, he leaps out of an inn one day and disappears. Yet one day, one of his old classmates comes across Li Cheng in the forest, but Li Cheng has since taken the form of a tiger, who lapses from animal- to human-state while maintaining his speech and poetry.

Pre-analysis: Just two words can be quite powerful. When I say “I run”, it’s a statement of pride like a welling hot spring. Further, when I say “I read”, it’s also a statement of pride. I don’t get the same sense of pride if I state facts about my gender, nationality, weight, or habits. You’re probably a reader, too, who has amassed a surmountable collection of books. Look at those books, gaze upon their diversity, imagery, and artistry. Now, imagine being someone who’s never read a book. Do you feel empty? or hollow? or devolved?  Further, imagine losing your books and not being able to pick up another book or another story for a day (for me, that’d hurt), a week, a month, a year. Do you feel empty again?

Analysis: In line with my interpretation of “Tiger-Poet”, I found an article abstract that resonates what I thought and better captures what I intended to say. The following abstract is from an article titled “A literate tiger: ‘Sangetsuki’ (Tiger-Poet) and the tragedy or discordance” (23 January 2007) by Kido Askew:

This paper examines Nakajima Atsushi’s celebrated short novel about transformation, ‘Sangetsuki’ (‘Tiger-Poet’). I describe Nakajima’s view of literacy and how this view is reflected in ‘Sangetsuki’. For Nakajima, literacy is the fruit of knowledge: once eaten, one can never return to one’s original state of happiness. In Nakajima’s world, to be literate means to experience agony, which is made even more acute when the inner literate mentality is contained within an outer oral appearance. The tragedy of ‘Sangetsuki’ lies not in the transformation of the hero from literate to oral, but in the incompleteness of the transformation; the hero retains his human mentality even after his physical appearance has been transformed. I also discuss ‘Sangetsuki’ in relation to the Gothic novel. It has been said that ‘Sangetsuki’ is Nakajima’s version of ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. However, if we focus on the issue of literacy, it has much more in common with Frankenstein. For the monster in Frankenstein and the hero in ‘Sangetsuki’ share the same suffering: the agony of literacy and the tragedy of discordance.

Pride seems to have wounded Li Cheng once: He quit the civil service to focus on the nobler quest of writing. That same pride then ruined him again: He couldn’t make a living from writing so he gave up and rejoined the civil service. Then, there’s a third time pride destroyed him: Unable to write what he loves, he loses his mind and devolves to a tiger, the form of which is unable to write, only to remember.

Review: We all experience failure; sometimes, it ruins us. Pardon the cliche: Most of us hit a few bumps on the road of life, but it never turns us into a insect (à la Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”) or a tiger (like Nakajima here). Whichever form failure leaves us in is the form we must accept. Li Cheng’s intellectual destiny as a civil servant contrasted with his artistic idealism, albeit mediocre artistry. So, next time when you fail, be thankful you still have your looks (unlike Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”) and your facilities (unlike Li Cheng). I think the key word here is “poignant”.

The Other City – Michal Ajvaz

The Other City (novel) by Michal Ajvaz

English Publication History: The Other City (2009, Dalkey Press)

Original: Czech (Druhé Město), 1993

Translated by Gerald Turner, 2009

Synopsis: When a man comes across an enigmatic text in the second-hand bookshop, the mysteries within compel him to buy it, seek someone who can understand it, and follow its enigma to the fullest. With words of warning, the man still decides to peer into his city’s empty corners and unlit corridors, passages of which lead to a parallel city that coexists with his own. The city’s perplexing customs and history only compel him deeper into its mystery, which may ensnare him if he commits himself, or if the denizens of the other city vanquish him first.

Pre-analysis:If you live in a city–or even in a town, for that sake–look out the window. The observable man-made universe can stretch for kilometers: apartments, roads, houses, elevated expressways, warehouses, skyscrapers–all have an exterior sheaths, all have dark nuances, and all have forgotten crevices. So, the “observable universe” that you see is mostly hidden from your view. You may see all those facades, but you’ll never see any of those nuances or crevices; those corners of civilization will forever remain an obscure idea of what composes a city. Now, imagine the same nuances and crevices that everyone has forgotten–only time and space lurk there, both existing and non-existing like Schrodinger’s cat. If you were to awaken yourself to these dark facets of the city, would they invert you into a parallel city, a realm of randomness? Look at the subway station’s fire exit, the condo’s bottom-floor stairwell, the mall’s shuddered shop, the void under the bridge – is there only darkness?

Analysis: Honestly, between the pre-analysis–where I wax poetic about my perception of the world in context with the novel–and the review–how it applied to my perception of the world, there remains very little between the two. The novel is a sustained flight of imagination (a phrase I used to reserve for Mervin Peake’s Titus Groan [1946] and Gormenghast [1950]) simply ensnares the reader. The reason behind this flight of imagination? The meaning behind the amazing stretch of imagination? In my opinion, there isn’t a particular thread that ties the novel’s unreality with any current issue; nor do I think that the juxtaposition of city-realities penetrates what we consider as city life.

If I were to make a stretch, I would say this: There’s a fine line between what we perceive and what is, what we think we see and what we think about what we see; what’s there when we look, what’s there when we turn away–solipsism. We can try to convey our experiences, but our subjective existence of any matter really prohibits what we can actually convey. Rather than confront our limitation in communication, an all-out assault on experiencing may be the only respite to satisfying the subjective mind, the self, the only confirmed mode of existence.

Review: Magical realism is a draw because it superimposes another layer of reality atop of our own familiar one. With a simple stretch of imagination–the novel’s perfection will give it much bolstering–the fragments of another reality can trickle in to your imagination, the figments of which cast ethereal impossibilities in your everyday life: If I were to follow that narrow space between those two buildings… If I were to crouch and hide here until the lights are off… If I were to meander the halls and stacks without a destination. When a novel penetrates your skull to this degree, you can clearly give it respect for having played the strings of your mind. Call it escapism or fantasy; regardless, a novel of this sort can shift your perspective on reality.

The House of a Spanish Dog – Haruo Satō

“The House of a Spanish Dog” (short story) by Haruo Satō

English Publication History: The Transatlantic Review No.7 (Fall 1961), Modern Japanese Stories: An Anthology (Charles E. Company, 1962)

Original: Japanese (西班牙犬の家), 1914

Translated by George Saito, 1961

Synopsis: Fraté is put for walk with his dog, whom he likes to follow as the dog tends to lead him off the beaten path. After a few hours, Fraté finds himself deep along a forested path then within the neck of the woods itself. Suddenly, just before him, it seems his dog had led him to a rustic little home under the forest’s canopy. Peeking inside, Fraté sees no one but a dog inside; upon opening the door, the only remnant of a anyone is a still-smoking cigarette. The simple dog and simple decor encourage Fraté’s daydreaming before he leaves, yet peeks inside for a surprise.

Pre-analysis: While the author’s “early poems show[ed] a strong socialistic tendency”, his later poems exhibited “his profound knowledge and passionate love of Japanese classical literature” (Morris, 1962). Morris further describes the story as having a “strong lyrical vein”, a story that was one of Satō’s few speculative stories before “adopt[ing] a more realistic approach to his material” later in his life.

Analysis: This 8-page story is largely a work of fiction that takes a vein of a story of a man and his dog. Simple as it may begin, the progressive series of placid mysteries impinge upon the man’s idle curiosity. With only the other man’s worldly belongings to stir his imagination, Fraté lets his imagination wander before exiting and peering through the window, where he sees the dog has disappeared yet the man seemingly materialize.

For Fraté, his curious nature is led by his trusty canine, a natural beast that is prone to curiosity and investigation; thereby, Fraté does likewise, albeit vicariously. For the forest hermit, however, this isolated man is more of an observer rather than a investigator. Where Fraté is an active pursuer of objective truth, the hermit is a passive observer of subjective sense. In the state in which they meet, both modes–active and passive–can be mutually explored only when innocent deceit is leveled.

Review: Morris remarked that the story shows a “strong lyrical vein”, but reads more like an immersive subjective story in a bucolic setting. Things are seen through the eyes and curiosity of Fraté, but the expected reflective poetry to his insights are not to be found; rather, it’s Fraté’s small flights of imagination and piques of insight that stir the reader to follow him through the hamlet, out the door, and to peer back through the window.