Friday, September 23, 2016

"Green Onions" by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

"Soon O-Kimi saw that they must have turned a corner and now were walking down a narrow back street. On the right-hand side there was a small grocery store open to the street, its wares displayed in piles beneath a bright gas lamp: daikon radishes, carrots, pickling vegetables, green onions, small turnips, water chestnuts, burdock roots, yams, mustard greens, udo, lotus root, taro, apples, mandarin oranges. As they passed the grocery, O-Kimi happened to glance at a thin wooden card held aloft by a bamboo tube standing in the pile of green onions: '1 bunch 4 sen,' it said in clumsy, dense black characters. With prices for everything surging upward these days, green onions at 4 sen a bunch were hard to find. In O-Kimi's happy heart, which until that moment had been intoxicated with love and art, the sight of this bargain instantaneously -- literally, in that very instant -- awoke latent real life from its torpid slumber. Her eyes were swept suddenly clean of images of roses and pearl rings and nightingales and the Mitsukoshi banner. Crowding in from all directions to take their place in O-Kimi's little breast, like moths to a flame, came rent payments, rice bills, electricity bills, charcoal bills, food bills, soy sauce bills, newspaper bills, make-up bills, streetcar fares -- and all the other living expenses, along with painful past experience. O-Kimi's feet came to a halt in front of the grocery store. Leaving the flabbergasted Tanaka behind, she forged in among the green mounds beneath the brilliant gaslight. And then, extending a slender finger toward the pile of green onions among which stood that 'bunch 4 sen' card, she said in a voice that might well have been singing 'The Wanderer's Lament,' 
"'Two bunches, please." (Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, p. 127-128)
This rather long paragraph, for me, illustrates beautifully the way that Japanese author Akutagawa develops tension: in this case, the story "Green Onions," an amusing sketch of a very young woman, O-Kimi, a waitress in a cafe in a "used-bookstore neighborhood of Tokyo" in 1919 -- the time that he wrote the story. (Note: the rest of this review contains spoilers about the very short story.)

The main tension that O-Kimi suffers comes from her worries about money and where her next meal will come from -- all the payments and obligations for rent, food, and daily life weigh her down. The mention of surging prices suggests that there's also tension in society at the moment of this novel, which affects O-Kimi and her reaction to a bargain. Though she's walking with her date, an artist named Tanaka, the sight of green onions stirs in her much less romantic thoughts.

Then there's the immediate tension about Tanaka, whose dubious intentions are much more obvious to the reader, but becoming clear to O-Kimi. We've already learned that she had a crush on him, which reflected her very idealistic and romantic view of life -- her "happy heart ... intoxicated with love and art." And this evening, we've already seen him make an excuse about their original destination -- a circus -- and begin leading her to a dubious neighborhood where he says they will eat dinner. We've seen how the very ordinary sights of the streets and shops they walked past seemed to her "to sing of the magnificent joys of love and to stretch off in splendor to the ends of the earth."

When she buys the onions, the love scene in Tanaka's imagination is also swept away by "the very real stink of green onions -- as penetrating and eye-stinging as real life itself." The implication is that her down-to-earth moment has saved her from Tanaka's intentions to seduce her. But the author is subtle, there's just the tension of the potential danger.

The tension between stark reality and poetic hopes of romantic love in the story is even stronger because the lives of O-Kimi and Tanaka appear within a frame story: the story of a writer (Akutagawa himself?) who has only a single night to write a story and make a deadline, and therefore invents the characters and their background. He's very tense about whether he'll finish the story. So the long descriptions and lists of foods and expenses make it clearer that he's struggling to include all the correct elements and meet the expectations of his readers and even more so the expectations and demands of his editors. And as soon as the two lovers deal with their reality, the author concludes:
"I did it! I finished the story! ... O-Kimi made it back unscathed to her room over the beauty parlor that night, ... All right, that's it, I'm going to stop writing. Goodbye, O-Kimi. Step out again tonight as you did last night -- gaily, bravely -- to be vanquished by the critics!" (p. 129)

1 comment:

Parrish Lantern said...

This was my favourite from the collection