Akutagawa’s 1922 modernist tale, Yabu no Naka or In a Grove, tells the story of seven varying accounts of the murder of a samurai, Kanazawa no Takehiro, whose corpse has been found in a bamboo forest near Kyoto. Each section “simultaneously clarifies and obfuscates what the reader knows about the murder, eventually creating a complex and contradictory vision of events that brings into question humanity’s ability or willingness to perceive and transmit objective truth.” Okay, that was pulled straight from Wikipedia. But sometimes Wikipedia really does describe things best.
In a Grove is a playful, elegaic look into the human psyche. I read it as part of a Penguin collection, Rashōmon (羅生門) and Seventeen Other Stories, of which In a Grove was certainly the most memorable contribution. Jay Rubin’s English translation was wonderful: delicate, striking and gruesome at times. I’ll strive to improve my Japanese until I can re-read this in the original, but until then I’ll have to assume that Rubin’s done an accurate job for us Anglophones.
As for the story itself, I was impressed most by the sheer freshness of it. Though it’s just a decade short of being a century old, the twists and turns and hair-raising humanity of each character’s account leaves the reader wanting more. Who dares call literary fiction dry, and all about characters sitting in rooms and gardens thinking about the past for pages and pages (to roughly paraphrase something Junot Diaz once said)?
The seven accounts include those of a woodcutter, a travelling Buddhist priest, a constable or magistrate type, an old woman, a notorious criminal, the murdered man’s ghost (as conveyed through a medium), and the murdered man’s wife. It’s crime fiction, but it’s not crime fiction. Akutagawa merely presents seven subjective truths; in the end, it’s not made clear which is the absolute truth. Nor do I think it should be expected that any single one of the narratives is absolute truth. Each probably contains elements of fact and truth, which have been distorted not only through deliberate deception, but also through the haze that obscures our recollections – whether it be through fear, time, trauma, or simply poor short-term memory.
Though, again, I can’t comment much on the prosaic, stylistic elements of it (having not read the original Japanese), I think it works well on the brilliance of the premise alone. On such a level, it succeeds simply by probing into our understandings of truth and objectivity. As a piece of fiction, it challenges conventional methods of storytelling and narrative construction.