Michael Orthofer kicks off discussion of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short-story collection Mandarins in this post with a discussion of the titular story from the collection and a rumination on the murky provenance of its name. You can find Michael’s earlier introductory post over here. So take a look, follow along, jump in whenever you feel like it.—Editors
When I hear (read) Mandarins, especially in an East Asian context, I think: Chinese wise men. Something along those lines, anyway. But the mandarins that give this collection—and the opening story—its title refer to the citrus fruit. Confusing matters further, the Japanese title of the story—Mikan—refers to a fruit that, while mandarin-like, is quite different. Others have apparently translated the title of the story as The Tangerines—not quite accurate either, but at least less ambiguous.
Is it just me, or does this title—and the impression it gives—cause some confusion?
At least it’s cleared up—to the extent it can be—fairly quickly: the 1919 story Mandarins is the first one in the collection, and the endnotes explain the title and the fruit in question—translator De Wolf explaining about the mikan that:
So representative is it of Japanese daily life, at least when in season, that English-speaking residents of Japan have come to refer to Tokyo as the Big Mikan.
De Wolf also notes that this story was published shortly after Akutagawa gave up his teaching position, i.e. embarked on a full-time writing career; from the chronology in Jay Rubin’s Rashomon-collection we also learn that that was the year Akutagawa’s father died (it’s unclear whether he died before the story was published, but the chronology suggests it).
The story is one of transitions, taking place in its short entirety on “a Tokyo-bound train departing from Yokosuka.” For the narrator it seems like a trip of little consequence: he sounds like little more than a bored commuter, though he doesn’t even give a reason for his own journey. He’s not the least bit excited about heading anywhere—or, indeed, about anything: “an unspeakable fatigue and ennui lay heavily upon my mind.” Trying to read the newspaper, he finds himself: “weighed down all the more by the myriad commonplace matters of the world”—despite those ‘commonplace matters’ being ones that are of great significance, from “peace treaty issues” (it’s 1919 and they’re still sorting out World War I over in Europe) to the more personal: weddings, death notices. So here’s aguy who is obviously tired of and unimpressed by it all, with, in a sense, nowhere to go. My favorite touch? The line, slipped in:
For a moment after the train entered the tunnel, I had the illusion that we had somehow reversed direction
But, of course, the train on its tracks plows inexorably and unwaveringly ahead.
When he boards, he’s the only passenger in that carriage, set to travel in his own little bubble—and he certainly seems like a guy who is isolated from the world. But it’s not meant to be: the train is already moving and it looks like he’s meant to take this journey alone when someone else does come “bursting in”—a young teenage girl.
She doesn’t belong. “She was the epitome of a country girl,” and all the words he uses to describe her and her clothing—”lusterless,” “chapped,” “unpleasantly,” “grimy,” “vulgar,” “displeasing”… well, you get the idea: he’s not thrilled to find himself thrown together with this person. But she’s impossible to ignore, especially once she starts trying desperately to open the window.
It gets worse: they plunge into another tunnel, and then she finally gets the window open—leading to a “stream of soot-laden air” pouring in. He can barely breathe, he can barely see. But he also notices, for example, how the girl “was staring relentlessly ahead.” Self-absorbed as he is, he doesn’t really seem to have thought much about what this girl was doing here in the first place (beyond being annoyed because he thinks she belongs in a third class carriage, not a second class one), but … well, the soot-filled air begins to clear and there’s a sense that the picture will become a clearer one as they emerge from the tunnel. And what do you know ? The outside view: “now was growing ever brighter” too.
The resolution probably has to come as suddenly as it does, and on first reading I didn’t even notice how quickly the pendulum swings—the girl barely “extends her ulcerated hands” and already the sight of the mandarins (mikans), “the color of the warm sun”, she flings out the window to the waiting children fills his “heart with sudden joy.” But the moment is realistic: all it takes is an instant of illumination, where all the pieces fit into place—as is the case for the narrator here, who realizes that this girl is leaving her home and family for the first time (and likely essentially forever), and that this is one last gesture of connection. It is remarkably affecting, despite how little sympathy he has offered for the girl up to that point (offered also to the reader, who could envision her only as this grimy country girl); by focusing everything on that one gesture, of tossing the mandarins, he simply gets to the essence and the point, instantly re-defining the girl (by now realizing what her circumstances are, whereas previously he only saw her as an irritant). (One imagines the story is even more powerful for Japanese readers, for whom those flying mikans are much more meaningful.)
The empathy the narrator feels is also enough to, “for the moment, get him over his “unspeakable fatigue” and ennui (in a great last line)—and perhaps it’s even more heartening that he can still be roused from his state to feel empathy, to have that joy rise up in his heart.
For him it seemed like a journey to nowhere, while for the girl it is the trip of a lifetime, representing the most radical change she will undergo, leaving a past behind and beginning a new life. But, of course, it also turns into a trip, a movement forward, for him—despite moments such as when he thought the train might have reversed directions. And for all its obvious symbolism (trips and trains and tunnels and mikans) it’s pretty subtly done.
One can imagine that at the time Akutagawa wrote this he was in a similar frame of mind—in a sense in both these frames of mind, leaving a presumably secure teaching job for a surely somewhat less secure job as a writer, having lost his father, yet also a man prone to the world-weariness he ascribes to his narrator.
There are a lot of typical Akutagawa elements in