The Beautiful and the Grotesque by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

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The Beautiful and the Grotesque by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Category: Short Stories
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Louise Laurie
Reviewed by Louise Laurie
Summary: Translated from Japanese, this is a collection of short stories written at the turn of the 20th century. Poetic and thought-provoking and steeped in Japanese culture these stories are all about the two sides of Japan: the old Japan and the bustling, modern-day Japan.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 432 Date: September 2010
Publisher: W W Norton and Co
ISBN: 978-0871401922

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The author, the tongue-twisting Akutagawa is hailed as one of the greatest short story writers in world literature says the back book cover. I was truly impressed and very keen to get reading. The front cover is both eye-catching and colourful, there's no doubt that this book is about Japan. There is a comprehensive Introduction with its lovely title A Sprig Of Wild Orange written by the translator. And straight away I got a strong sense of his enthusiasm for the short stories to follow. It is a good lead-in as it informs the reader of the gulf which exists between Western and Japanese values (a gulf as big as it gets, apparently) and of the conservative nature of the Japanese people.

There is also a useful and welcome short introductory note (often accompanied with an illustration) to each short story, the idea being to give a little information on either the background of the story or a mini potted history of that particular time or year. The translator's idea is that the reader will engage and get maximum enjoyment from all of the stories. The author himself died in the 1920s so most of the stories between these colourful book covers are around a century old.

John McVittie, the translator, also uses rather old-fashioned words and phrases at times. Phrases such as ... when you read this introductory epistle ... for example. I suspect he's made a deliberate attempt to echo the style of the author.

As you might expect, Buddhism has a strong presence throughout. The Robbers is all about the decline of Japan's capital city, circa 1917. And there are 'softer' paragraphs say, describing a frail, elderly woman juxtaposed with strong imagery ... the ugly, one-eyed samurai and strong writing ... two or three stray dogs had found she was good feed; they were trying to eat her ... The overall message is both poetic and powerful at the same time. In The Robbers along with others, there's an underlying universal message which could be described as timeless: life and death, negative feelings towards family, unprovoked cruelty.

Most are serious pieces of literature. They may be, for some, an acquired taste. For me, while I enjoyed reading a book I would not possibly choose from a bookstore shelf or borrow from my local library, I found that, shall we say, a little Japanese writing does go a long way. I did enjoy in particular the poetic quality and some lines are memorable but overall I know that I was not connecting one hundred per cent with all the stories. The style is rather meandering (some may say, long-winded) and certainly has a distinct olden days feel about them.

One of my favourites was one of the few 'lighter' stories written from a dog's angle. It's entitled Shiro and the introductory note tells us that In Buddhist belief the soul of a dog ... is of equal importance to that of a human being. This 1920 story is short, to the point and with a message, if you are willing to seek it out. Other stories have mysterious and rather enigmatic titles such as Withered Fields, The Dolls and The Handkerchief.

Personally, I think this collection is an acquired taste. The style is such that the reader is expected 'to put a bit of work in' to get maximum enjoyment. Good for all culture vultures of Japan and poetry fans alike, there's Haiku aplenty. An intriguing read.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals then you might like to try Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard.

Buy The Beautiful and the Grotesque by Ryunosuke Akutagawa at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Beautiful and the Grotesque by Ryunosuke Akutagawa at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Beautiful and the Grotesque by Ryunosuke Akutagawa at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Beautiful and the Grotesque by Ryunosuke Akutagawa at Amazon.com.


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