Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Kappa: Ryunosuke Akutagawa

When the cover proclaimed Ryunosuke Akutagawa as the author of Rashomon, I picked up Kappa immediately. Then I turned to the back of the book.

Patient No. 23 tells his story to anyone in the asylum who will listen: on his way home through the valley, he fell into a deep abyss while chasing a nimble creature with a face like a tiger and a sharp beak. The creature was a Kappa, and when he awoke he was in Kappaland.

I almost put the book back. But Rashomon won and the book accompanied me home. It turned out to be a good decision after all.

Kappaland is Akutagawa’s metaphor to comment on humankind and on Japanese society in particular. It is a Gulliver’s Travels from Japan, if you will. And just as satirical.

For the large part, Akutagawa uses the Kappa as an anti-man, a simple inversion.

The most puzzling of all was the confusing Kappa way of getting everything upside down: where we humans take a thing seriously, the Kappa will tend to be amused; and, similarly, what we humans find amusing the Kappa will take in deadly earnest.

Like this one on clothing.

The one thing that struck me as really amusing was the fact that the Kappa does not wear any form of loin covering. On one occasion, I tried asking Bag about this practice. He threw his head back and guffawed so loudly and so long that I thought I’d never be able to stop. His reply—once he’d managed to restrain himself enough to be able to talk—didn’t make matters any better.

‘I get just as much amusement from the way you cover yourself.’

There are similar takes on birth control, gene mixing and the relationship between man and woman, among others.

On other occasions, Akutagawa exaggerates typical human practices. Like the rather grotesque reference to unemployed workers being killed and eaten (by other Kappas) to ensure zero unemployment. Or the references to politics, war and unscrupulous businessmen. Or when he dwells on concepts like ends justifying means, life beyond life and organised religion.

The section where the poet Tok, who commits suicide, resurfaces as a ghost in a séance is perhaps the highpoint of the book. In particular, his responses to two questions: why he came back as a ghost, and what he will do if he wearied of the spiritual life.

This slim, brilliantly translated work (Geoffrey Bownas) is definitely worth a read. You will need just one sitting to finish it.

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