Meredith at Dolce Bellezza is hosting The Japanese Literature Challenge 14, which takes place from January to March 2021, and this post on five Japanese short stories is my contribution to the challenge (see all the other exciting entries here and for my entries to the previous Japanese Literature Challenge 13 see my reviews here and here).
I. Murder in the Age of Enlightenment  by Ryunosuke Akutagawa –★★★★
This memorable story with confident prose by the “father” of Japanese short stories Akutagawa (Hell Screen ) is told through a letter and diary entries written by one young man to Viscount and Viscountess Honda. The story’s unreliable narration that deludes the truth and makes motives questionable introduces us to one hidden obsession as we plunge deep into the psyche of one disturbed man. If Akutagawa’s short story The Spider’s Thread  relied on Dostoyevsky’s story of a woman and an onion from The Brothers Karamazov , here we also see certain close similarities with other works. The story starts close to The Sorrows of Young Werther  by Goethe (unrequited, forbidden and passionate love/drastic action), but finishes very similarly to Doctor Glas  by Hjalmar Söderberg (doctor/mental torment/similar action taken to secure the future of a beloved woman). I read this story in Murder in The Age of Enlightenment (Essential Stories) by Ryunosuke Akutagawa [translated by Bryan Karetnyk, Pushkin Press 2020].
In this novel by Thomas Hardy, Grace Melbury is torn between her feelings for simple farmer Giles Winterborne and her emotions towards sophisticated doctor Edred Fitzpiers. Evoking the beauty of rural life and nature, Hardy paints in his story a powerful image of imperfect characters who find themselves in circumstances beyond their immediate control. Themes of unbridgeable class divide, marriage confines and the negative effects of growing industrialisation all feature in this great novel by Hardy.
Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death [1985/1998] by Yoel Hoffmann – ★★★★★
“I cleansed the mirror/of my heart – now it reflects/the moon“ [Renseki, 1789];
“A tune of non-being/filling the void:/spring sun/snow whiteness/bright clouds/clear wind” [Daido Ichi’i, 1370].
Japan has always stood unique in the world in its attitudes towards death, including death taboos and rituals, and there was a centuries’ old tradition in Japan to write “death/final farewell poems” (jisei). This well-researched book compiles these poems written by both traditional haiku writers and zen monks, and some of the poems in the book have been translated to English for the first time. If poems by zen monks are full of (hidden) meaning and profound philosophy, poems by traditional haiku poets are more evocative. The book is a “must-read” for anyone interested in Japanese haiku (a type of short form poetry) or Zen Buddhism (because the introduction by the author also elucidates on many complex Zen Buddhism concepts, quoting direct sources and providing numerous examples).