Dead Men Tell No Lies
Penguin Mini Modern Classic
by RyĹ«onsuke Akutagawa
Hell Screen by RyĹ«onsuke Akutagawa made my neck hairs stand while waiting in a grocery store line, stealing a few moments to read the Mini, endlessly multitasking.Â There I was, next to the Snickers and Trident, transported to the Horikawa district in the Capital, somewhere lost in time.Â My nectarines made it to the register, and the reverie broke. Shaken, I hastily shoved the book back in my bag.
It took me a couple of days to digest the work, figuring how to review it.
The longer work in this Mini, Hell Screen, has folktale tonality with a self-conscious awareness. It follows the painter, Yoshihide, a very unlikable man.â€ť He paints the Hell Screen by commission for a devious Lord.Â His sole humanizing factor is his beautiful daughter who is in the Lordâ€™s court.
Upon Yoshihideâ€™s daughterâ€™s introduction, I knew sheâ€™d be killed.Â Not foreshadowing or anything overt, I think my hunch came perhaps because thatâ€™s how Iâ€™d approach it, too.Â It put me on guard, and I watched with trepidation as the story unfolded. The young girl delivers a message â€śgaily knotted on a branch of red winter plumâ€ť and meets a monkey she names after her father and befriends.Â This monkey becomes devoted to her, and is an interesting element.Â Later in the text the devotion factors, when the narrator is attacked by the panicking monkey,Â the creature trying to help his virtue-compromised mistress, inferentially by the Lord.Â The monkey thanks the narrator for startling away the Lord:Â â€śI looked down to find the monkey Yoshihide prostrating himself at my feet, hands on the floor like a human being, bowing over and over in thanks, his golden bell ringing.â€ťÂ It is a hard sentence to read, but beautiful.
I pause in reviewing, because like in the reading of this, I feel distracted by the questions the story gently raises.Â A writerâ€™s motivation in the choice of subject matter always interests me, and this story concerns itself with an unlikable painter who gladly suffers for his art.Â Implicit in what Akutagawa says is delicate as the plum blossoms he mentions repeatedly.
Yoshihide makes a terrible request, wanting to burn a woman alive in a carriage, so to make his representation of Hell more detailed and honest.Â It becomes too honest. Pages of unsentimental, brutally beautiful descriptions of Yoshihideâ€™s daughter being charred alive are some of the most horrifying Iâ€™ve read.Â â€śThe pale whiteness of her upturned face as she choked on the smoke; the tangled length of her hair as she tried to shake the flames from it; the beauty of her cherry-blossom robe as it burst into flame; it was all so cruel.â€ťÂ The cruelest detail is that the girlâ€™s monkey, though tethered far away, makes it to her, and clings to her shoulders â€śagainst a flaming backdrop.â€ť
The father Yoshihide watches, and his despair turns to something else, which I decline to detail.Â At this point, the reaction of the individual reader is their own, no model for the ethical morass Akutagawa renders.Â It is not to the reviewer to rob the reader of this individual experience, key to Akutagawaâ€™s power.
This work is so powerful it is challenging to describe.
There is a suffering in this work, a deep wrangling, lurking below the virtuosic prose.Â I knew, reading the title story, that the writer was unwell.Â The beautiful sentences, the gruesome descriptions (still beautiful) and the compelling themes all point to a half statement/half question:Â We bring this on ourselves, donâ€™t we?Â Â Everyone in his work is responsible for their own suffering, and the sentences are heavy with this.
There is no doubt the writer suffered.Â I read about his life after I read the Mini.Â Death by his own hand at 35.Â He researched the method least messy and disruptive to his family.Â He swallowed pills and slept.Â Not the ceremonial death of the shogun, but strangely considerate. His ambivalence about life itself, the modern condition of a psychological awareness of our own culpability in our mental predicaments, and a fine eye for noticing and being so able to pen the horror of it all â€“ thatâ€™s the goose bumps I felt at the grocery checkout, reading this.
In Hell Screen, the painter finishes his work, and hangs himself.Â The writer does, sometimes, too â€“ when heâ€™s seen enough.Â How awful to know Akutagawa didnâ€™t live to see his work turned into the great film, Roshomon.
It shouldnâ€™t be surprising to this reviewer, but it is – some stories are unhappy ones.