“The Onlooker” (short story) by Yasutaka Tsutsui
English Publication History: Bullseye! (2017, Kurodahan)
Original: Japanese (傍観者), 2006
Translated by Andrew Driver, 2017
Synopsis: A woman walks through the door with a man in tow, who seems rather disheveled but eager to be in the presence of the woman. Together, they head toward the bedroom. Soon, another man knocks and enters the front door, causing the first man to crouch behind the sofa with in clothes in hand. The woman leads the second man to the bedroom where she had just been with the previous man. In the second man’s jacket sits a letter from another woman. Observing all of this is the onlooker on the sofa who thinks of three things: metaphysics, new challenges, and food.
Analysis: Simple lives can be reflective lives… take a look at Buddhist monks (well, not Thai Buddhist monks as some members of the sangha seem to be embroiled in fraud, lechery, or both). Anyway, there are 227 precepts for monks to follow, which are called the patimokkha. Though many of the precepts outdated and terrible specific (i.e. monks may not raw wool for more than 48 kilometers), many create discipline in the monastic order so that time can better spent learning and preaching the dhamma.
A good life can be had through this simplicity if mindfulness is present; however, sometimes simplicity is forced upon us, be it because of age or location. In this so-called downtime, the mind isn’t occupied by the everyday distractions of social media, routine, or work; rather, the mind begins to spin like a flywheel. In this free state, epiphanies can occur, reflection can be sought, and introspection can effervesce.
Compare this state of being with the life of the average adult: embroiled in daily work, petty personal dramas, all-consuming routine, time-killing “hobbies”, and general lethargy. When can the mind reflect on proper diet and exercise or treating others in a neighborly fashion? This requires mindfulness and mindfulness isn’t gained through busyness, but by quiet reflection.
In the story, the onlooker waxes lyrical before observing the chaotic scene of lewd adult behavior. In this drama (much like that of a soap opera), the onlooker loses focus on high-minded ideas in order to understand the unfolding drama. Ripped from reverie, the onlooker’s mind transitions from metaphysics to adult drama to food… from high thought to circuses then to bread.
Review: Aside from the reflection of innocence and corruption of the mind, there’s a further parallelism in the function of the woman and her body parts in the story. I can’t divulge too much without ruining the ending, but upon completing the story, consider what she could have used with the two men and how she could use it with the onlooker. If corruption extends past the acts committed, the use of her body in the story is a further spoiling of innocence upon the onlooker. The story is short but well paced while offering candy for the mind in more ways than one.