Review: Murder in the Age of Enlightenment by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

book cover: murder in the age of enlightenment

Murder in the Age of Enlightenment: Essential Stories is a collection of seven stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. While the titular story is my least favorite, its title suits the collection well as each story hinges on death—either murder or suicide. On the whole, it’s an excellent collection of creative and disquieting fiction. The following stories are included.

“The Spider’s Thread”
A short fable with a lesson on compassion.

“In a Grove”
I first read this story in a Japanese Literature course over a decade ago. It had everyone up and chatting at 9 a.m., which is a tremendous endorsement because 9 a.m. classes were always a little sleepy. In this story, a body is found in the woods and multiple people are interviewed to identify the killer. In an unusual twist, each person claims to be the guilty party and each confesses a different motive. This story is the basis of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, and is a true classic.

“Hell Screen”
This story is about a painter commissioned to create an image of Hell. The painter, Yoshihide, goes to increasingly disturbing lengths to create his masterpiece. While Yoshihide is a fairly unnuanced character, and the outcome is obvious, I admire Akutagawa’s ability to describe things that are so horrific as to be indescribable. The way he depicts the screen with its graphic depictions of Hell and suffering is genuinely eerie.

“Murder in the Age of Enlightenment”
Despite being the titular story, this was my least favorite. The way its characters are written feels dated and dry, but I don’t think it’s the fault of the writer or translator, per se. It doesn’t help that the action is narrated in retrospect from a letter, in which a man laments his unrequited love and vacillates between love and hate for his rival.

“The General”
I had to read this story twice because it’s so different in style from the others. Rather than a conventional story with a beginning, middle, and end, “The General” is a series of snapshots that gradually reveal a character set against a wartime backdrop.

“Madonna in Black”
Another unsettling story. This story details the curious events around a statuette of the Virgin Mary—Maria-Kannon. Unlike other figurines, this one is carved from ebony and wears a cruel smile instead of the usual look of benevolence.

By far the strongest and most interesting story in the collection. The narrator—who is at least partially based on Akutagawa himself—is invited to a wedding and becomes increasingly unsettled by a number of hallucinations and coincidences. As he becomes more anxious, the parallels that he sees between objects and events grow increasingly tenuous. It’s hard not to connect the narrator’s discomfort and misery to Akutagawa himself because “Cogwheels” was written shortly before his own suicide. Regardless of how autobiographical this story actually is, the last paragraph lands with disturbing weight when set against the author’s death.

Overall: 4.6 (out of 5.0) I don’t think it’s fair to hold old fiction to modern standards, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that women aren’t well-represented here. They’re largely voiceless and often victims. I don’t expect to see women in roles with agency they’d be unlikely to have at the time these stories were written, but it’d be nice if they had more dimension.

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Image credit: Goodreads

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