- "The Moon over the Mountain": Stories by Atsushi Nakajima by Paul McCarthy and Nobuko Ochner
For a while, I often wondered why I had turned into a tiger; but the other day I found myself wondering why I had once been a human being. What a terrible thing that is! Soon, the human consciousness that I still have will vanish, buried beneath the ways of a beast-like the foundations of an ancient palace gradually being buried beneath the sands. When that happens, I will lose my past entirely and wander about as a raging tiger; and if I should happen to encounter you along the way, I would not recognize you as an old friend, but tear you to pieces, and devour you without a moment's regret. (p. 4, trans. Paul McCarthy) [End Page 371]
So speaks the one-time government official and ambitious poet Li Zheng of Longxi to his erstwhile friend Yuan Can of Chenjun. The setting is Tang-dynasty China; the Japanese writer is Nakajima Atsushi, who published the tale as Sangetsuki ("The Moon Over the Mountain") in the Tokyo literary magazine Bungakukai some ten months before his death, at age 33, in December, 1942.
"From the beginning of literate culture," write Nobuko Ochner and Paul McCarthy in the afterword to their translations of this and eight other short stories by the same author, "Chinese influence has been at its core" (p. 168). Nakajima in particular exemplifies this tradition: His paternal grandfather abandoned the family business to become a Chinese classics scholar and then passed on his passion to his sons, including Atsushi's father. Despite weak health, Atsushi was himself a tiger for learning, devouring occidental literature and teaching himself Latin and Greek, before eventually returning to his East Asian roots. As the translators point out, Nakajima's works are (or at least were) "well established in the Japanese canon" (p. 174) and, despite the difficulty of his language, have been read as high-school texts.
"The Master" is an amusingly fantastical tale of a young man intent on becoming the greatest archer in the world. "The Bull Man" is a dark story of an illegitimate child who, while playing the role of a humble servant, schemes to become his father's heir. "Forebodings" tells of Xiaji, a taciturn and reserved beauty who is nonetheless the ruin of men. "The Disciple" is a partially fictionalized account of a real person, Zilu, a brash young man who becomes a faithful disciple of Confucius and dies a martyr to the cause of Confucian virtue. In "The Rebirth of Wujing," the author imagines the earlier life of Sha Wujing, a disciple of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang and a major character in The Journey to the West (Xiyouji). In "Waxing and Waning," Kuai Kui, heir apparent to Duke Ling of Wei, who in "Forebodings" is killed by Xiaji's son, schemes in vain to kill his adulterous stepmother and then, having at last achieved power, succumbs to cruelty and debauchery. "Li Ling," the longest tale, retells the true story of a Han general who, on being defeated by the Huns, reluctantly defects to them. "On Admiration: Notes by the Monk Wujing," again features the main character of the volume's sixth story, here telling his own version of the Journey to the West, as though, according to Nakajima's note at the end, reciting an excerpt from a longer memoir.
Four of the stories in this collection have already appeared in German translation by Stefan Wundt and Kawauchi Nobuhiro (Kokusaigo Gakusha, 2000). As an adviser to that project, this reviewer can readily agree with the English translators' comment that "the original Japanese texts written in Nakajima's classical, erudite style are not easy" (p. 124). When, for example, Li Zheng recites a verse he has composed, it is entirely in Chinese, the last line reading: 此夕渓山対明月/不成長嘯但成噑. McCarthy renders this in English as: "Tonight I gaze at the bright moon over the mountain/Unable to sing an...