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There is something discernibly old-school about this anthology of short stories. In this solid introduction to Japanese literature of the 20th century, translator Lane Dunlop includes the work of literary giants such as Osamu Dazai and Yasunari Kawabata, and there are none of the felons, sociopaths, shut-ins or cyborgs that stalk the pages of most contemporary literature. The dialogue is muted but expressive, the inner emotions of characters are held in check and inference prevails over explicit description. When there are shocks and revelations, they are released in the fullness of time, like depth charges.

A Late Chrysanthemum: Twenty-One Stories from the Japanese, by various authors
Translated by Lane Dunlop
178 pages
TUTTLE PUBLISHING

In the aptly named “Infatuation,” Naoya Shiga traces the course of a man’s extramarital affair. The spouse compares his partner’s “drab and pathetic” appearance to that of his young lover, a woman whose “flesh was like the pure white meat of a crab caught in northern seas.” While showing that he has no affection for her, he derives pleasure from the torment he inflicts on his long-suffering wife. Shiga gives little indication of his own position on infidelity, but hints at the psychological damage wreaked on marriages by male narcissism.

We remain in the morally dubious world of sexual fixation with “The Wagtail’s Nest” by Shiro Ozaki. Here, a man enjoying a long sojourn at a country inn begins to take an interest in an orphaned adolescent living in a nearby temple. Again, the imagery draws analogies between the delectably edible and the human body, descriptions that are likely to make many contemporary readers flinch. The narrator, in this instance, compares changes to the girl’s complexion to conditions during the rainy season when a “loquat takes on the color of ripeness day by day.” Any reservations we might have to read or, in an act of unconscious complicity, allow such retrogressive attitudes to women, are moderated by the craft demonstrated by these masters of the short story form. Even with the hapless characters that appear in Kobo Abe’s surrealist entries, the entire collection reminds us of the Japanese sensitivity for revealing details.

Toward the latter half of the collection, an intimation of twilight, of the denouement of life and beauty, settles on the book. In the title story, “A Late Chrysanthemum,” Fumiko Hayashi, the only female writer in the book, gives us a poignant and meticulously detailed portrait of a woman in her late 50s waiting for the arrival of an ex-lover she has not seen for many years. The character, who believes her retreating beauty can still be saved with a thorough regimen that involves the application of expensive creams to her face and thighs and a drop of sake to flush the cheeks, resolves that she “must look even more youthful than she had that time when they parted. It would be a defeat if she let him feel her age.”

It’s a poignant ending to an anthology that resonates with pathos and resigned maturity.

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