“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”.