Original Title: 山月記 (Sangetsuki)
Author: Atsushi Nakakima (中島 敦, Nakajima Atsushi)
Translator: Paul McCarthy and Nobuko Ochner
Genres: Japanese Literature, Chinese History
Rating: ✮✮ +½
“We are all of us trainers of wild beasts, it is said, and the beasts in question are our own inner selves.”
Stories in this book:
- The Moon Over the Mountain
- The Master
- The Bull Man
- The Disciple
- The Rebirth of Wujing
- Waxing and Waning
- Li Ling
- On Admiration: Notes by the Monk Wujing
I try not to be apologetic when I review books, but this is one case where I feel truly terrible – and my rating isn’t even that low.
Atsushi Nakajima is famous for his stories on Ancient China, and is considered to be a master of the sub-genre by keeping his stories faithful to their original source. He’s highly regarded in Japanese Literature and praised for his work – an annual festival is even held in his honor – and his writing style is one full of rich philosophical idioms about what it means to be the “self”, and why things are the way they are. According to the translators, Nakajima’s original Japanese is “erudite” and hard to read, which might be why this is the only collection of his stories published in English.
To the accuracy of the content, I cannot verify; I studied Ancient China once, but it was years ago, and it’s all but forgotten. The first few stories – including, of course, The Moon Over The Mountain – are beautiful. They’re absolutely beautiful.
Having chanced to go mad, I became a wild beast
Calamity piled upon calamity – I cannot escape my fate.
Who could now withstand my fangs and claws?
Yet in student days I shared your bright promise –
Now I have become a beast crouching in a thicket,
While you ride grandly in an official’s carriage.
Tonight I gaze at the bright moon over the mountain.
Unable to sing an ode, I can only howl.
The problem with his style, though, is that it’s unbalanced. Though it might be accurate, most of these stories are “related” and not “created”, just as Sima Qian laments about in the novella Li Ling. Basically, these stories are recounted fact for fact, until it stops reading as a story and becomes a textbook. While in the shorter stories the effect is softened, in longer ones such as The Disciple, The Rebirth of Wujing, and Li Ling, it’s exponential. The events that take place in these stories are indeed full of blood, power struggles, politics, and war – there’s even a castration. Ouch – but due to the way it’s written, it’s hard to get enraptured and easier to fall asleep. It’s exactly the same as medieval history: it seems exciting until you start studying it.
This could be a big case of, “It’s not you, it’s me”. For him to be so highly respected, I have to think that my feelings are more due to personal taste than Nakajima’s abilities as a writer.