An Enlightened Husband


 

Translated from the Japanese by Charles DeWolf

From Mandarins, forthcoming from Archipelago Books, July 2007. This story has never before, to our knowledge, appeared in English.

When was it now? On a cloudy afternoon, I had gone to a museum in Ueno to see an exhibition of early Meiji-era culture. I moved methodically from room to room until I came to the final display: engravings dating back to the period. In front of glass-enclosed shelves stood an elderly gentleman, looking at worn copper-block etchings. Slender, with an air of fragile elegance about him, he was dressed entirely in black, with neatly creased trousers and a stylish bowler. I immediately recognized him as Viscount Honda, to whom I had been introduced at a gathering some four or five days earlier. At the time, I had quickly discerned that his was a personality disinclined to social relations; I was thus momentarily unable to decide whether I should greet him. But then, as though having heard my footsteps, he slowly turned toward me, a smile flitting briefly across lips draped with a half-white moustache. “Well, well,” he said gently. Feeling slightly relieved, I wordlessly acknowledged the salutation and timidly made my way to him.

In his drooping facial flesh still lingered, like the last glimmerings of evening light, traces of the handsome features that had been his in the prime of youth. At the same time, it was a face over which a pensive shadow fell, a reflection, unusual for a man of the aristocracy, of inner suffering. I remembered staring on the day of our first encounter, just I was doing now, at his large pearl tiepin, a dismal light shining out of a sea of black, as though it were the heart of the viscount himself.

“What do you think of this etching? It is a map of Tsukiji, is it not? Brilliantly done, is it not? The contrast between light and shadow is quite extraordinary.”

He spoke in a soft voice, gesturing with the silver knob of his cane toward the enclosed prints. I nodded my head.

Tokyo Bay engraved with micaceous waves; flag-waving steamships; foreigners, men and women, walking the streets; pine trees à la Hiroshige, their branches reaching toward Occidental-style buildings… This eclectic blend of East and West, in both subject and technique, exemplified the beautiful harmony that characterized the art of the early Meiji era, a harmony now forever lost, not only from our art but from everyday life in Tokyo.

I again nodded my head, remarking that the plan of Tsukiji interested me not only as an etching but also for the heightened sense of nostalgia it evoked, recalling the sense of shared pride in “modern enlightenment”: two-seat rickshaws, decorated with Chinese lions frolicking among the peonies, the glass-plate photographs of geishas…Viscount Honda smiled as he listened but even now was stepping quietly from the display and slowly moving on to the next: ukiyo-e by Taiso Yoshitoshi.

“Well then, look at this: Kikugorõ in Western dress and Hanshirõ, his hair drawn up into a gingko-leaf bun, just as they are about to perform a tragic last scene beneath the light of the moon. It recalls the era all the more… It appears, does it not, with such vividness, Edo and Tokyo indistinguishably blended, as though night and day had formed a single era!”

Whatever his current aversion to further social intercourse, I was aware that Viscount Honda, having been sent abroad for study, had earned an oft-lauded reputation, both within the halls of power and among the people, as a man of genius. As I now stood listening to him in this nearly deserted exhibition room, surrounded by glass-encased prints and etchings from that era, I was thus struck by how fitting his words were—indeed, all too fitting. At the same time, this very feeling engendered within me something of a counter-sentiment, so that I hoped he would end his remarks and allow us to move our discussion from times past to the general development of ukiyo-e. But with that same silver knob on his cane he continued to point to one print after another, commenting in a low voice:

“When I find myself looking at such prints, the three or four decades since that time appear before me as if they were yesterday. It is quite as if I might open the newspaper and find an article about a ball held at the Rokumeikan. To tell you the truth, ever since entering this display room, I have had the feeling that all of those from that era have come to life again and, though invisible to us, are here walking to and fro…And those phantoms sometimes put their mouths to my ear and whisper of days gone by… That queer idea continues to haunt me. Particularly as I see Kikugoro in Western clothes, I almost have the impulse to apologize for my long silence, for, you see, he closely resembles a friend of mine. It is a nostalgia mixed with a sense of the macabre. How would it be?... If you would not terribly mind, I should like to tell you something about him.

Viscount Honda spoke in an agitated tone, looking away from me, as though uncertain of my response. At that moment I remembered that on first meeting him some days before, the acquaintance who had gone to the trouble of introducing us had said: “He is a writer. If you have any sort of interesting story, please relate it to him.”

Even if that had not transpired, I was now so caught up in the viscount’s sighs of longing for things past that I had already wished it possible to ride a horse-drawn carriage with him into lively avenues lined with stylish red brick buildings, enshrouded in the mists of lost time. I bowed my head and happily agreed to his proposal.

“Ah, well then, let us go over there…”

Complying with his suggestion, I followed him to a bench in the middle of the room, where we sat down. We were quite alone, surrounded only by the glass cases and the rows of antiquated copper-block etchings and ukiyo-e, all looking rather forlorn in the cold light of the cloudy sky. The viscount rested his chin on the knob of his cane and gazed about the room, as though surveying a catalogue of his own memories. At last, however, he turned toward me and began to speak in a subdued voice.

“My friend’s name was Miura Naoki; I happened to make his acquaintance on the ship that brought me back from France. We were the same age, twenty-five years old at the time. Like Yoshitoshi’s Kikugorõ, he was fair-complexioned and slender-faced, his long hair parted in the middle. He was indeed the epitome of early Meiji culture. Over the course of the long voyage we found ourselves on quite friendly terms, and on our return to Japan the bond had become such that we would hardly let a week go by without one of us visiting the other.

“Miura’s parents, it seems, had been large-scale landowners in the Shitaya area. When they died, one after the other, just as he was on his way to France, he would, as their only son, have already become a man of considerable means. By the time I knew him, he was favorably situated, needing only to go through a few perfunctory formalities at a certain bank to enjoy an unbroken life of idle pleasure. Thus, from the moment he returned to Japan, he lived in the mansion, he lived in the mansion he had inherited, located near Hyappongui in Ryogoku, where, having built an elegant new Western-style study, he basked in luxury.

“Even as I speak, I have that room as vividly before my eyes as any of the etchings we have just seen. The French windows overlooking the Great River, the white ceiling with its gold fringe, the red chairs and sofa covered in Morocco, the portrait of Napoleon on the wall, the large, engraved ebony bookcase, and the marble fireplace with its mirror, above which stood his late father’s beloved bonsai…There was a sense of antique newness about it all, an almost sepulchral splendor. Or, to describe it in another way, it was like a musical instrument that is out of tune—and so very much indeed a library of its time. And when I tell you how Miura sat under the portrait of Napoleon, as though he himself were overlooking a battlefield, wearing some sort of double-layered yuki pongee and reading Victor Hugo’s Orientales, you will see how the scene was all more from the copper-plate etchings there across the room. Hmm, now that I think of it, I believe I even remember sometimes looking out on those same ships, their white sails so immense that they blocked the view from the French windows.

“Though Miura lived extravagantly, he was, in contrast to other young men of his age, not the least inclined to venture into the licensed quarters of Shinbashi or Yanagibashi, preferring to shut himself up every day in his newly constructed library, absorbed in reading more suitable to a young retiree than to, let us say, a banker. Of course, such was in part the consequence of his frail health, which permitted no deviation from regular and wholesome habits. It was also, however, a reflection of his character, which, in direct opposition to the materialism of the times, naturally inclined him, with an intensity twice that of others, toward pure idealism and thus to the acceptance of his solitary existence. Indeed, though he was the model of the modern, enlightened gentleman, his dissimilarity to the mood of the age made him, at least in respect to his idealistic disposition, more like the political dreamers of a generation before.

“Let me tell you, for example, of going with him one day to the theater to see a dramatic presentation of the Shinpuren Rebellion. As I recall, it was after the denouement, the scene of Ono Teppei’s ritual suicide, when Miura suddenly turned to me and asked, a serious expression on his face: ‘Can you feel sympathy for them?’

As a proper returnee from study abroad, I loathed anything smacking of the discredited past and so icily responded: ‘No, I cannot. It seems to me a matter of course that those who fomented insurrection all because of an ordinance forbidding the wearing of swords should have brought about their own destruction.’

“Miura shook his head with an air of dissatisfaction: ‘Their cause may have been mistaken, but their willingness to die for it deserves sympathy—and more.’

“To this I retorted with a laugh: ‘Well then, would you not begrudge throwing away your one life on the childish dream of turning the Meiji generation back to the Divine Age?’

“Even so, his own reply was both serious and decisive: ‘I could wish for nothing more than to die for a childish dream in which I truly believed.’

“At the time, I paid little heed to his words, taking them to be no more than fragments of ephemeral conversation. I now know on reflection that in them lay, coiled like hidden smoke, the shadow of the piteous fate that awaited him down the years. But I must proceed step-by-step, in the natural sequence of the story.

“In any case, Miura was a man who clung to his principles, even in the matter of marriage. He had no qualms about declining even the most promising offers that came his way, having made clear that he would not wed without amour. Moreover, his was no common understanding of the term, so that even when he met an eligible young lady that quite struck his fancy, it never led to any talk of eventual matrimony, as he would remark to the effect: ‘I still seem to be troubled by muddled emotions.’

“Even from my vantage point as a disinterested third party, I found it quite vexing and so for his own good would occasionally resort to meddling: ‘To examine the nooks and crannies of one’s heart, as you do, should make it all but impossible to live a normal life. You must simply resign yourself to a world that does conform to your ideals and content yourself with a less than perfect match.’

“But Miura would only give me a pitying look and say quite dismissively: ‘If that were so, I should not have endured so many years as a bachelor.’

“Yet though able to ignore a friend’s admonitions, he had also to contend with his relatives, who, mindful of his frail health, could not help being concerned that he might not produce an heir. They had apparently gone so far as to encourage him at the very least to take a concubine. Needless to say, Miura was not inclined to give heed to such advice. Indeed, the very word disgusted him, and he would often catch my ear to remark derisively: ‘For all our talk about modern enlightenment, Japan is still quite openly a land of kept women.’

“Thus, for the first two or three years after his return from France, he devoted himself to reading, with Napoleon as his sole companion. Not even those of us who were his friends could speculate concerning his prospects for a mariage d’amour.

“Meanwhile, I had been dispatched to spend some time on government matters in Korea. I had not been there a month, having just become accustomed to my new quarters in Keijo, when, lo and behold, I received a marriage announcement from Miura.

“You can well imagine my astonishment. Yet I could not but be amused as well as surprised at the thought that at last he had found his heart’s desire.

The content of the message could not have been simpler: Nuptial arrangements had been concluded between Miura Naoki and one Fujii Katsumi, the daughter of a purveyor to the imperial household. According to the letter that followed, he had taken a walk to Hagidera in Yanagishima, when he happened to meet the antiquarian Fujii, who had frequented Miura’s mansion on business. With him on his visit to the temple was his daughter, and as the three were strolling through the precincts, Miura and the young woman had quite spontaneously fallen in love.

“The gate of the temple in those days still had its straw-thatched roof, and in the middle of the bush clover is even now a stone monument on which Basho’s famous verse is inscribed:

Alike in allure:

Traveler and bush clover, 



 

Drenched in autumn rain

“Such elegant surroundings were undoubtedly the perfect setting for this juxtaposition of intelligence and beauty. Nevertheless, the idea of Miura having been so smitten—the self-professed epitome of the modern gentleman, who never went out without donning his tailor-made Parisian suit—suggested much too conventional a pattern. Reading the announcement alone had brought a smile to my lips, as though I had been subjected to a veritable tickling.

“As you may readily suppose, it was the antiquarian who managed all the arrangements. Fortunately, someone was found to act as a pro-forma matchmaker for this sudden fait accompli, and with that all proceeded smoothly to their marriage in autumn of that year.

“I hardly need to tell you that the newlyweds lived happily. What particularly amused me, even as I felt a twinge of envy, was the buoyancy and cheerfulness emanating, to judge from subsequent letters informing me of his latest news, from a man nearly entirely transformed from the dispassionate, desk-bound scholar he had been.

“I have kept all of those letters, and whenever I read them one by one, it is as though I see his smiling face before me. With a childlike joy, he persevered in his missives, telling in great detail of his daily life. The morning glories he had attempted to cultivate that year had died. He had been requested to make a donation to a Ueno orphanage… Most of his library had mildewed during the rainy season… He had gone to see a performance of Occidental jugglers and sleight-of-hand artists at the Miyakoza Theater, when a fire broke out in Kuramae… One could go on endlessly. Yet, in all of this, he seemed to have found the greatest joy in commissioning the artist Goseta Hobai to paint a portrait of his wife. This he put on the wall to replace Napoleon, and I myself later saw it.

“According to his description, Madame Katsumi had been portrayed in profile, standing in front of a full-length mirror; with her hair swept back in Western style, she was wearing a gold-fringed black dress and holding a bouquet of roses in her hand. Yet though I did indeed see that portrait, I was never to see the buoyant and cheerful Miura…”

Viscount Honda uttered a faint sigh and was silent for a moment. I had been listening intently but now involuntarily threw him an anxious look, as his words gave me reason to wonder whether by the time of his return from Keijo, his friend Miura was no longer living. He appeared immediately to perceive this and in response slowly shook his head.

“I do not mean that during my absence Miura died, only that in all that happened during the year before my return, he had lost his equanimity and was now even inclined toward pensiveness. I could see this already at Shinbashi Station, where he had come to meet me, as I cordially took his hand to signal the end of our long separation. No, perhaps I should say that what struck me instead was what seemed to be an excessive equanimity. In fact, such was my feeling that something was amiss that no sooner had I seen his face than I exclaimed: ‘What is it? Are you ill?’

“For his part, he seemed quite taken aback by my concern and assured me that both he and his wife were in the best of health. I thought to myself that, after all, the mere space of a year, whatever the effects of a mariage d’amour, his fundamental character could not have changed so radically. With that, I put my worry aside by saying jocularly: ‘It must have been an odd refraction of the light that made me think that your facial coloring was not what it should be.’

“It took two or three months more for me to discern little by little that here there was nothing to be dismissed with laughter, that behind the melancholic mask lay a terrible anguish. But now I am once again getting ahead of the story. To proceed properly, I must tell you something about his wife.

“I first met her shortly after my return, when Miura invited me to dine with them at their home along the banks of the river. Though I had heard that they were approximately the same age, she would have appeared to anyone, perhaps because she was so small and slender, to be several years younger than he.

“She had rich eyebrows and a round face, with a fresh and rosy complexion. That evening she wore a classic kimono, decorated, as I remember, with images of butterflies and birds and secured with a satin obi. To resort to the thinking of the time, I should say that there was something about her that suggested le haut niveau. And yet when I compared her with the person I had imagined as Miura’s bride, the very personification of his amour, I sensed a vague discrepancy. I say “vague”—for I could not explain even to myself the source of this intuition.

“The shadows that fell on my expectations were no more than the flickering thoughts that had passed through my mind on various encounters, including that initial reunion with Miura and, of course, the evening spent together; they were certainly not such as to dampen the exuberance with which I congratulated the couple. On the contrary, I could only be filled with admiration at the sheer vivaciousness of his wife, as we lingered at table, sitting around the light of the kerosene lamp.

“Her repartee was as swift and sure as the proverbial reverberations of a tolling bell. ‘Okusan,’ I was even moved to exclaimed in all seriousness, ‘you really should have been not in Japan but rather in France!’

“Well, you see now,’ interjected her husband, as though to tease her gently, ‘isn’t she just as I’ve long been telling you?’ Nonetheless, it cannot have been merely my imagination that even as I heard this seeming pleasantry, it struck me as dull and joyless. Nor can it have been merely unjust suspicion on my part to have seen in her half-reproachful sideways glance at him a revelation of undisguised coquettishness.

“Be as it may, I could not help seeing their life together illuminated in that ever so brief exchange, as though by a bolt of lightning. In retrospect, I see myself as having been present as the curtain rose on the tragedy of Miura’s life. At the time, however, it was only a slight shadow of anxiety momentarily dimming my spirits; immediately thereafter all had been set aright, as he and I began a lively exchange of cups. Thus, having spent a truly delightful evening, I took my leave in a state of mild inebriation, and as I rode the rickshaw home over the river, exposing my flushed face to the wind, I repeatedly offered for his sake silent words of congratulation on having succeeded in finding amour.

“About a month later, during which time I had, of course, paid frequent visits to the couple, I was invited to the Shintomi-za by a doctor friend of mine. As it happened, the play being performed was O-den no Kanabumi, and there, sitting in the center of the box directly across from us, was Miura’s wife. At the time, it was my habit to take opera glasses with me whenever I went to the theater, and it was she who first caught my eye as I looked through those round lenses. She was seated in front of a flamboyantly colorful tapestry. With her white double chin resting on a decorative collar of sedate hue, she had inserted in the knot of her hair what appeared to be a rose. At the very moment I recognized her, she nodded to me with those same provocative eyes. As I lowered my opera glasses and returned the greeting, I was surprised to see her looking back at me with a flustered expression. This time, however, her salutation was strikingly more formal and deferential. I now understood that her initial greeting had not been intended for me. Quite without thinking, I glanced about to discover who this other acquaintance of hers might be. I saw sitting in the box next to me a young man dressed in a loud striped suit. He too seemed to be looking for his counterpart. He stared in our direction, a strong-smelling cigar in his mouth, until his eyes caught mine. There was something about his dark complexion that I found unpleasant, and I immediately averted my gaze, again picking up my opera glasses and idly looking across to the opposite side of the theater.

“In the box with Miura’s wife sat another woman. When I tell you that it was a certain Narayama, an advocate for women’s rights, I think it unlikely that you will not have heard of her. She was at the time the wife of the rather well-known lawyer Narayama. An outspoken promoter of judicial equality between the sexes, she was also the perennial subject of unpleasant rumors. Seeing her there in a stiff-shouldered, black crested kimono and gold-rimmed spectacles, next to Miura’s wife quite as though she were her guardian, I was overwhelmed by an ominous sense of foreboding. As she adjusted and readjusted her collar, the feminist was pointing her angular, lightly powdered face in our direction—or rather, I think, throwing meaningful glances at the man in the striped suit.

“It is no exaggeration to say that all during the performance I gave far greater attention to him and the two wives than to the actors on stage, Kikugoro or Sadanji. Filled as it was repugnant thoughts and images, my mind was quite incapable of relating to the world before me: the lively musical accompanists to the left of the stage or the artificial cherry sprigs hanging down from above.

Thus, when the two women went out immediately after the end of the middle piece, I experienced a genuine sense of relief. Of course, the man in the striped suit had remained. Puffing on his cigar, he would glance at me from time to time, but now that two of the three were gone, his swarthy face did not trouble me as much as before.

“It will strike you as absurdly groundless suspicion, but his features did indeed inspire in me a strange aversion, so that between him and me—or rather between him and us—there was from the beginning an intractable hostility. Thus, when less than a month later I was introduced to him in Miura’s study, overlooking the Great River, I could not help feeling something close to the perplexity one experiences in the face of an utterly insoluble riddle.

“It seemed he was the cousin of Miura’s wife and held a position of some responsibility, relative to his youth, in a certain textile company. As we sat round the table at tea, it soon became apparent to me that he was a man of some talent, even as, puffing on his cigar, he contributed to our desultory conversation with witless comments. Needless to say, none of this changed in the least my opinion of him. Nevertheless, when I appealed to my own reason, I saw that inasmuch as he was the cousin of Miura’s wife, there was nothing the least extraordinary in their exchange of greetings at the theater. I therefore did my utmost to engage him. Yet whenever I seemed to be on the verge of success, he would do something annoying—slurping his tea, as he variably did, casually dropping cigarette ashes on the table, laughing uproariously at his own jokes. And so my antipathy for him was only rekindled.

“When after only thirty minutes he excused himself, saying that he had to attend some sort of company banquet, I found myself impulsively going to the French windows overlooking the water and opening them wide, as though to purge the room of vulgar air. Seated as was his custom under the portrait of his wife with her bouquet of roses, he said to me reproachfully: ‘My goodness, how you do dislike him!’

‘I cannot help finding him unpleasant. That he is your wife’s cousin is astounding.’

‘Astounding? Why?’

‘He is of an altogether different sort…’

“Miura fell silent for some time, staring fixedly at the river, the light of the evening sun having already begun to play on its surface. When he spoke again, it was with an unexpected proposal:

‘What would you say to going off on a fishing expedition, the two of us?’

“Being only too happy to have the subject of the cousin behind us, I responded with an immediate show of spirit: ‘A splendid idea! I have a bit more confidence in angling than in diplomacy.’ Miura smiled for the first time and said: ‘Than in diplomacy, you say. As for myself… Well, to begin with, I suppose I feel more competent in matters piscatorial than amatorial.’

‘Have you then a prize catch in mind to surpass your wife?’

‘Now wouldn’t that be good—something more with which to make you jealous!’

“His words seemed to pierce my ears like a needle, though there in the twilight his tranquil gaze still lingered on the light of the water below.

‘When should we go?’ I asked.

‘Whenever it suits you.’

‘Then I shall inform you by post.’

“I slowly rose from the red-leather chair in which I had been sitting, silently shook his hand, and quietly left his somber study, the whiff of secrets in the air, and stepped into the even darker corridor. Near the door, I quite unexpectedly met a black figure, quietly standing there quite as though having eavesdropped on our conversation. Seeing me, the person immediately approached me, exclaiming in a most charming tone: ‘Oh, are you leaving so soon?’

“For a moment I felt breathless but then gave Madame Katsumi a glacial stare and a wordless salutation before moving with rapid strides to the entrance, where a rickshaw was awaiting me. My mind was in such a state of confusion that I myself was hardly aware of it. All that I remember is that as I was crossing Ryogoku Bridge, I found myself repeating to myself over and over the name of Delilah.

“It was from that moment that glimmerings of the secret behind Miura’s melancholic demeanor began to make themselves clear to me. I need hardly say that this secret was seared into my mind in the form of those abhorrent characters that form the word adultery. Yet if my assumption was correct, why did not Miura of all people, idealist that he was, resolve to divorce her? Did he lack sufficient evidence? Or, was he, despite it all, hesitating to act out of love?

“As I relentlessly pondered these hypotheses, turning them over one by one, I soon forgot about the fishing trip, and though over the next two weeks or more I continued on occasion to write, my heretofore frequent visits to the Miuras’ house on the riverbank ceased altogether. Yet scarcely had those two weeks elapsed before I had another unexpected chance encounter. I resolved to use our talk of going fishing as a partial reason for a direct meeting and there to lay open to him my anxieties.

“I had gone with my doctor friend to the Nakamura-za to see a play. We were on our way back when we happened to meet a familiar face, a journalist for the Akebono, writing under the name of Chinchikurin-shujin. As it had started to rain on this late afternoon, we made our way for a drink to the Ikuine, located at the time in Yanagibashi.

“We were seated on the second floor, enjoying moderate imbibing, as we listened to the sound of a shamisen, evoking long-ago Edo. Now our journalist friend arose, caught up in the merriment, and, like a popular writer of fiction from that era, sprinkling his remarks with jeux de mots, began to entertain us with scandalous stories about Madame Narayama. It seems the woman had been a foreigner’s concubine in Kobe. Then for a time she had had San-yutei Engyo as her kept man.

“In her heyday, she had worn six gold rings, but in the last two or three years had been up to her neck in debts of legally dubious provenance…Chinchikurin-shujin had much else to tell us concerning her dissolute conduct behind the scenes, but for me the most disturbing shadow that he cast with his account concerned the recent appearance in her company of a certain young lady, who, rumor had it, had become for the other an accessory as inseparable as her kimono pouch. Moreover, it was said that she sometimes stayed overnight with the women’s rights advocate in Suishin—and in the additional company of men.

“When I heard this, I saw, amidst the jolly exchange of cups, the pensive figure of Miura flicker hauntingly before my eyes, and found it impossible to join, even out of a sense of duty, in all the boisterous laughter. Fortunately, the good doctor quickly became aware of my subdued spirits and adroitly steered the raconteur in another direction, completely away from the topic of Madame Narayama. Now I could breathe again and continue to converse without marring the conviviality.

“Yet that evening had been made to bring me naught but bad luck. Disheartened by the gossip concerning the women’s rights advocate, I had at last stood up with my two companions to leave and was standing in front of the Ikune, about to step into a rickshaw, when another, this one designed for two passengers, suddenly and forcefully swept by, its rain-covered canopy glistening. I had one foot on the running board when, at almost exactly at that moment, I saw the oilpaper canopy of the other rickshaw raised and someone bounding out in the direction of the entrance. Just as I glimpsed the figure, the canopy of my own vehicle was lowered. As the puller lifted the shafts, I felt strangely agitated and involuntarily muttered to myself: “That one!” It could be no other than the dark-complexioned, stripe-suited cousin of Miura’s wife. Thus, as I sped along the illuminated boulevard of Hirokoji, the rain streaming from the canopy, I was pursued by dread anxiety at the thought of who might have been his fellow passenger. Might it have been Madame Narayama—or Madame Katsumi, a rose in her hair bun?

“Even as I agonized over the irresolvable uncertainty of my suspicions, I was fearful of solution—and angered at my own cowardice in having hurriedly jumped into the rickshaw to conceal my identity. To this day, the question of which woman it was remains for me an enigma.”

 Viscount Honda drew out a large handkerchief and, discreetly blowing his nose, looked round again at the contents of the display cases, now bathed in evening light, before quietly resuming his story.

“Of course, I earnestly thought all these matters, particularly what I had heard from Chinchikurin-shujin, to be of extreme interest to Miura, and so the next day immediately sent a letter to him, offering him a date for our fishing jaunt. He immediately replied, saying that as the day would be the sixteenth day in the lunar calendar, we might instead go out in a boat on the river at twilight and gaze at the moon. I had, needless to say, no particularly strong desire to go fishing and so readily consented to his proposal. On the appointed day, we met at the boathouse in Yanagibashi and, before the moon was up, rowed out toward the Great River in an open, flat-bottomed barque.

Even in those days, the view of the water in the evening may not have been worthy of comparison with the elegance of the more distant past, but something of the beauty that one sees in old woodblock prints remained. When on that evening too we rowed downstream past Manpachi and entered the Great River, we could see the parapet of Ryogoku Bridge, arching above the waves that flickered in the faint mid-autumn twilight and against the sky, as though an immense black character had been brushed in Chinese ink across it. The silhouettes of the traffic, horses and carriages, soon faded into the vaporous mist, and now all that could be seen were the dizzying dots of reddish light from the lanterns, passing to and fro in the darkness like small winter cherries.

‘Well, what do you think of it?’ asked Miura.

‘I think one would look in vain for such a view anywhere in Europe,’ I replied.

‘Ah, then apparently you see no harm in enjoying a bit of the discredited past when it comes to scenery.’

‘Yes, when it comes to scenery, I concede.’

‘I must say that recently I have grown quite weary of all that is called modern enlightenment.’

‘If you’re not careful, you too will be stung by Mérimée’s acerbic tongue. You must remember how that sneering rogue allegedly said to Dumas or someone, standing next to him, when a delegate from the shogunate was walking down the boulevard in Paris: “Tell me, who could have bound the Japanese to such an absurdly long sword?”

‘Yes, but I have greater admiration for the story of He Ru Zhang, who during his stay at a hotel in Yokohoma saw a Japanese dressed in sleepwear and remarked to the effect: “Here in this country are relics of the Xia and Zhou dynasties!” No, there is nothing that one may ridicule simply on the grounds that it is a thing of the past.’

“Surprised at how the waves had risen, augmenting the suddenly deepening darkness, I glanced round and saw that having greatly quickened our pace, we were now south of Ryogoku Bridge, approaching shubi-no-matsu, its dark trunk and branches appearing in the night to be of an even deeper ebony.

Eager to broach the subject of Madame Katsumi, I quickly pursued Miura’s comment:

‘If you yourself are so attached to older ways, what will you do about your modern wife?” I asked, testing the waters.

Miura was silent for a moment, gazing at the sky above Otakegura, as though he had not heard my question. The moon had not yet risen. Finally, he said simply, speaking quite softly: ‘I shall do nothing. As of about a week ago, we are divorced.’

Quite taken aback by his unexpected reply, I gripped the gunwales of the boat.

‘So you knew?’ I asked, no doubt in a tone of hesitation.

Miura continued with the same air of calm as before:

‘So you knew it all too?’ he asked, throwing the question back at me, as though by way of confirmation.

‘Perhaps not everything. I did hear about her ties to Madame Narayama.’

‘And about my wife and her cousin?’

‘I had some glimmerings of it…’

‘Then surely I need say no more.’

‘But, but… When did you become aware of the relationship?’

‘Between my wife and her cousin? About three months after our marriage—just before commissioning her portrait with the painter Goseta Hobai.’

“This response too, as you can well imagine, was quite astonishing.

‘But why, until tonight, have you tacitly accepted the outrage of it all.’

‘I did not accept it tacitly—but rather quite openly.’

“For the third time, I was dumbfounded. For several moments I merely stared at him in stupefaction.

‘Mind you,’ he said without the slightest trace of insistence, ‘the relationship of which I approved between my wife and her cousin was the one that I had painted in my imagination, not the one that presently exists. You will remember that I insisted on a marriage based on amour. This was not to satisfy my own egotism; it was rather the consequence of my having placed love above all things. Thus, when once we were married I came to understand that the bonds of affection between us were less than genuine, I regretted my precipitancy and at the same time felt pity for her, now that she was obliged to live with me. As you know, I have never been in the best of health. Moreover, despite my efforts to love my wife, she has been unable to love me—or perhaps it may be that my notion of amour was from the beginning such a paltry thing that it could never have inspired passion in her. If therefore there was such true affection between my wife and her cousin, who have known one another since childhood, I would gallantly sacrifice myself to their happiness. Not to do so would be, in effect, to renounce the supremacy of amour. It was for that eventuality that, in fact, I intended the portrait of my wife—to hang in my study as a replacement for her.’

“As he spoke, Miura again looked across to the opposite bank of the river and the horizon. It was as though a black curtain had fallen from the sky, enveloping the towering chinquapins of the Matsuura estate in gloom, with no sign of a cloud from out which the moon might appear. I lit a cigarette and urged him to continue: ‘And then?’

‘I learned soon thereafter that the love between my wife and her cousin was something impure. To put it bluntly, I was informed that he also had a liaison with Madame Naramyama. I am sure that you will not have any particular desire to know how I acquired such knowledge, and I myself do not wish to elaborate. Suffice it to say that it was by pure chance that I discovered their place of assignation.’

“I let the ashes of my cigarette fall over the gunwales, as I vividly recalled the memory of the rainy evening at the Ikuine. Miura immediately continued: ‘This was a major blow. Having largely lost whatever grounds I had for approving of their relationship, I naturally found it impossible to maintain my previous air of benignity. That must have been about the time you returned from Korea. I was daily tormented by the question of how to separate my wife from her cousin. However false might be his love for my wife, there was no doubt in my mind that her feelings for him were quite sincere… Such was what I believed. At the same time, I thought it necessary, for the sake of her happiness, for me to act as a negotiator. But when they—or at least she—perceived my frame of mind, she seems to have reasoned that I had just become aware of their relationship and was now overcome with jealousy. She thus began to view me with hostility; perhaps she even exercised the same wariness toward you.’

“Now that you say that,’ I replied, ‘she was standing outside your study, listening to our conversation.’

‘Yes,’ he remarked in return, ‘she is the sort of woman who is quite capable of that.’ For several moments we remained silent, staring at the dark surface of the water. Our boat had already passed under Oumayabashi and was edging slowly toward tree-lined Komakata.

“Miura spoke in a subdued voice: ‘Even then I did not doubt my wife’s sincerity. Thus, the knowledge that she did not grasp my true feelings or rather that I had only earned her hatred caused me all the more anguish. From the day I met you at Shinbashi until today, I have constantly been in the throes of that distress. But then about a week ago, a maid or one of the other servants carelessly allowed a letter that should have gone to my wife to find its way to my desk. I immediately thought of her cousin… Well, I eventually opened the letter and found to my astonishment that it was a love missive from yet another man. And what I mean to say by this is that her love for her cousin was no less impure. Needless to say, this second blow was of vastly more terrible intensity than the first. All my ideals had been ground to dust. At the same time, I was sadly comforted by the abrupt lessening of responsibility.’

“Miura ceased speaking, and now from above the rows of grain storehouses along the opposite bank we saw just beginning to rise the immense, eerily red globe of the autumn moon. When just a few minutes ago I saw Yoshitoshi’s ukiyo-e of Kikugoro in Western dress and was reminded of Miura, it was particularly because that red moon was so similar to the lantern moon mounted on the stage.

“Miura, with his thin, pale face and his long hair parted in the middle, gazed at the rising of the moon and then suddenly sighed, remarking sadly even as he smiled: ‘Once, some time ago, you dismissed as a childish dream the cause of the Shinpuren rebels and their willingness to fight to the death. Well, perhaps in your eyes my married life too…’

‘Indeed, perhaps so. But then it may also well be that in one hundred years our goal of achieving modern enlightenment will likewise seem no less a childish dream.’”

Just as the viscount had finished speaking these words, an attendant appeared to inform us that the museum was about to close. We stood up slowly and giving one last look at the ukiyo-e and copperplate prints all around us, silently walked out of the darkened display hall, quite as though we ourselves had emerged from those glass cases as phantoms from the past.

 

 

 

Charles DeWolf has lived in the United States, Europe, and Asia. He is a professor at Keio University in Tokyo and a scholar of both historical linguistics and classic Japanese literature. DeWolf translated Naoko Matsubara’s short story collection, Tales of Days Gone By (Tuttle, 2004) and has published a handbook of his own titled How to Sound Intelligent in Japanese: A Vocabulary Builder (Kodansha, 1993).

Contributor

Akutagawa Ryunosuke

Akutagawa Ryunosuke, the Father of the Japanese Short Story was born in 1892 in the multi-cultural Tsukiji district of Tokyo. Ryunosuke studied English literature at Tokyo Imperial University and then worked as both an English teacher and a newspaper editor before publishing his first collection of short stories, Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa later made a movie based on this work), in 1914. Unfortunately, the life of Ryunosuke was short and rather bleak. In 1921, Ryunosuke moved to China where he had a four-month stint as a reporter for the Osaka Mainichi Shinhun. However, while he suffered from various physical ailments while in China, it was his own mental disturbances that took his life in 1927. After several bouts with hallucinations, Ryunosuke died from an overdose of barbiturates.

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