The stories in this fantastical, unconventional collection are subtly wrought depictions of the darkness of our desires. From an isolated bamboo grove, to a lantern festival in Tokyo, to the Emperor's court, they offer glimpses into moments of madness, murder, and obsession. Vividly translated by Bryan Karetnyk, they unfold in elegant, sometimes laconic, always gripping prose.
Akutagawa's stories are characterised by their stylish originality; they are stories to be read again and again.
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One day, brothers and sisters, Lord Buddha Shakyamuni was strolling alone by the banks of the Lotus Pond in Paradise. The blossoms on the pond were each a perfect white pearl, and from their golden centres wafted unceasingly a wonderous fragrance surpassing all description. It must have been morning in Paradise, brothers and sisters.
By and by, Lord Shakyamuni paused at the edge of the pond, and He looked down through the carpet of lotus leaves to behold the spectacle below. For you see, directly beneath the Lotus Pond in Paradise lay the lower depths of Hell, and as He peered through the crystalline waters, He could see the River of Three Crossings and the Mountain of Needles as clearly as if He were viewing pictures in a peep box.
Soon His eye came to rest on the figure of a man named Kandata, who was writhing around in those hellish depths with all the other sinners. This great robber, this Kandata, had wrought all manner of evil and misdeeds—murder, arson, and more besides. For all that, however, he had, it seemed, performed one single act of kindness in his time. Passing through a deep wood one day, he noticed a tiny spider creeping along the wayside. His instinct was to trample it to death, but as he raised his foot, he had a sudden change of mind. “No, no,” he thought. “Tiny though this creature is, it’s still a living thing. To take its life on a whim would be too cruel an act, no matter how you look at it.” And so he let it go unharmed.
Lord Shakyamuni recalled, as He looked down on this spectacle of Hell, that Kandata had saved that spider, and so He decided to reward this singular good deed by rescuing the man from Hell if He could. As chance would have it, He turned to see a heavenly spider spinning a beautiful silver thread atop a lotus leaf with the brilliance of kingfisher jade. Taking the spider’s thread carefully in His hand, Lord Shakyamuni lowered it among the pearl-white lotus blossoms, straight down into the far-distant depths of Hell.