A Migratory Bird 渡り鳥

Translator Hirotoshi Kimura takes us out on another night of drinking with author Osamu Dazai. A solid slice-of-life piece that will quench your literary thirst.

Osamu Dazai
Translated by Hirotoshi Kimura

Flesh doth pleasure’s raiment wear; Heart, anguish.
—Dante Alighieri

One night, in late autumn, after a concert at the Hibiya Public Hall, countless numbers of crows poured out in multifarious formations, pushing and shoving, embarking on their homeward way, spreading their wings.

“Oh, if it isn’t Mr. Yamana.”

The voice belonged to a lean, lanky young man, bareheaded, disheveled, in a blouson.

“Yes…,” replied Mr. Yamana, a middle-aged portly gentleman. In complete disregard of where the young man was heading, he kept walking toward Yurakucho.

“Who are you?”

“Me?”

The young man swept up his scruffy hair, letting out a chuckle.

“Why, a dilettante of sorts.”

“So, what do you want?”

“I’m a fan of yours, I love your music reviews. I see you haven’t been writing lately.”

“Well, I have, actually.”

Ouch! The young man curled up his lip in the cover of night. He is a university student in Tokyo, but has neither a school uniform nor a cap; just a blouson and a suit to match. He gets no financial support from his parents, so, at one time, he eked out his living by doing shoe-polishing, and at another, selling lottery tickets. But these days, here’s how he scrabbles a living: officially an editing assistant at a publishing house, he’s involved also in some shady business here and there, so he has more money than you would deduce from his circumstances.

“Only Mozart’s deserves to be called real music, doesn’t it?”

Trying to redeem the flat flattery, the young man pulled into his recall Mr Yamana’s rhapsodic recall essay on Mozart, then carefully insinuated his way into his favor, murmuring.

“Not really…”

Yes! He’s got his temper back. I could even bet money that his cheeks have slackened behind his overcoat collar.

Emboldened, he went on…

“I think the degeneration of modern music started around the days of Beethoven. It’s perverse that music should go head-to-head with the life of man. Music should essentially be an accompaniment to our lives at the most. After hearing Mozart tonight, it dawned on me what music really is…”

“This is my station.”

It was Yurakucho Station.

“Oh, I see. I’m sorry, I am really glad to have been able to talk to you tonight.”

With both hands tucked in his trouser pockets, the young man took a shallow bow, parted ways with Mr. Yamana, turning clockwise toward Ginza.

Beethoven is Beethoven, Mozart, Mozart, that’s about it. Mr. Yamana is growing a mustache, but it’s past all understanding. Maybe he’s not endowed with an eye of discernment, that’s right, no discernment, ergo, he has no abhorrence. Maybe I’m like him. Tasteless! But a mustache…I hear it’s salubrious for the teeth, wait, is it to bite into someone’s flesh? Nah. Oh, I’m reminded of the emperor’s*1 mustache, so elegant—of how he was clad in western fashion and yet wore getas. Oh, so pitiful! Indeed, your majesty’s psychology would have been unfathomable to me. I may say it’s almost as though one’s mustache is chafing at the bit in eagerness to fight the wearer. His sleeping face must beggar description. I think I’ll try growing one myself. That’ll impart me some kind of enlightenment, I hope. What word can ever describe Marx’s mustache? How is it structured? It’s as if corn silk is wedged underneath his nose. Inscrutable! Descartes’s is like a cow’s drool—a hallmark of scepticism, perhaps? —Oh? I wonder what her name was…oh yes, Ms. Tanabe, I am sure. Forty years old. At that age, women, too, will have extra money to spend, very good. Her being a petite, young-looking one helps as well.

“Ms. Tanabe.”

I tapped her on the shoulder. Agh! A green beret! Unbecoming! You should give it a second thought. Ideologues disregard taste, ha? But think about your age, your age!

“Who?”

Ha? Nearsighted? Give me a break!

“An assistant at Crayon Publishing…”

Do I have to name myself? Are you sure you don’t have sinusitis?

“Oh, sorry, Mr. Yanagawa.”

That’s not my real name, but I won’t tell it to you.

“Yes, I wanted to say thanks about last time.”

“Oh, don’t mention it.”

“Where have you been?”

“What about you?”

Oh, why so tight-lipped?

“To a concert.”

“Oh, I see.”

Now you can let your guard down? This is why I have to go to a concert or some such from time to time.

“I’m on my way home, by subway. I had some business to take care of at a newspaper.”

What do you mean “some business”? Stop lying. You’ve been with a man, haven’t you? A newspaper? Talk about the vanity of a socialist woman!

“Did a lecture?”

Look! Not a blush on her face!

“No…just something about the union…”

The union? The Dictionary of Received Ideas defines it as going every which way, eventually wearying oneself into tears; a synonym of busyness.

My eyes are no stranger to a few drops of tears, either.

“Must be hectic every day.”

“Right you are…”

I knew I was right on.

“But there’s never been a better time for a populist revolution, has there?”

“Yeah, now’s the chance.”

“Now or never, right?”

“But I will never ever throw in the towel.”

My flattery is lost on her yet again? —I wonder what will ever please her.

“What about chatting over a cup of tea?”

Come on, mooch off her!

“Yeah, but I’ll take a rain check this time.”

What a fickle lady! A man blessed with a woman like you would be really lucky; she would definitely be financially sensible. And along would come a tinge of suppleness.

A forty-year-old lady is a forty-year-old lady. A thirty-year-old lady is a thirty-year-old lady. A sixteen- or seventeen-year-old girl is a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old girl. Beethoven. Mozart. Mr. Yamana. Marx. Descarte. The emperor. Ms. Tanabe. But I’m now all alone. Just the wind.

OK, so, what shall I eat tonight? What’s this queasiness?…Maybe, concerts are bad for the stomach. Foolish of me to have smothered that belch.

“Hey, Yanagawa!”

Agh, not a good name! It’s the inversion of the characters of senryu*2, and reminds you of the Yanagawa hotchpotch*3…No! I’ll adopt a better nom de guerre, as of tomorrow. By the by, who is this guy, ever so ill-favored? Oh, yes! An aspiring writer who came to my office with a manuscript! Such a bore he was…almost drunk. Maybe, he wants to cadge off me. I’ll act aloof.

“Well…excuse me, but who are you?”

He may cadge off me anyway.

“I forget when, but I came to your office with a manuscript. You told me it was just an aping of Kafu*4’s writing right before I left. Isn’t that enough of a hint?”

Trying to browbeat me? I couldn’t have critiqued that way. I used “epigone,” no, maybe “imitation.” At any rate, I didn’t read a single page. The title put me off. What was it? Well…yes! “One Showgirl’s Unrequested Rambling.” It was I who was bewildered and embarrassed. I couldn’t believe how such a dolt could still inhabit this world.

“Now I remember.”

Much politesse wouldn’t go amiss. For this hombre is a dolt. I don’t want to get clobbered. But he looks frail. I think I can easily beat him, but, still waters run deep, as they say. Circumspection is the best policy.

“I changed the title.”

I’ll be damned! Right on target! Seems like he’s not completely inane.

“Is that so? Yes, that would be a good step.”

Nope–I’m not interested at all.

“I retitled it “A Fight Between Men and Women.””

“A Fight Between Men and Women…”

I am struck dumb, you jack-fool! You exceed the bounds of stupidity. A louse of a man. Beat it! Vamoose! Don’t wanna catch your filth, this is why I hate young aspiring writers.

“I got a publishing deal with it, actually.”

“What?”

“I got a deal. With that manuscript.”

More than a miracle. The emergence of a new writer, perhaps? I’m starting to get sick. Despite his twisted-nose hyottoko*5 phiz, he might be an unexpected genius. Terrifying. Oh so terrifying. This is why I hate young aspiring writers. OK, I’ll flatter him.

“Yeah, the title is very original.”

“Yes, it seems to jibe with the taste of the time.”

I could just frigging fetch you a thwack! Give me a break! Fear me, God–we are done!

“I got paid for it today, and handsomely at that! Even after much barhopping, I’ve still got more than half left.”

That’s because you drink stingy. Such an obnoxious bozo! He’s just bragging because he’s got money. About three thousand yen, right? No? Wait, you counted how much you got left in a restroom, right? I’m certain of that. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to say “I’ve still got more than half left” with that kind of confidence of tone. You did it! You did it right? Yeah, I can understand that. You counted the bills one by one in the shadow of an electric pole in the backstreet, heaved a sigh, and weakly mumbled, “O, torment you not! Behold! a bird is gliding overhead!” Just pathetic! I’ve been there, actually.

“I’m thinking of burning through all the rest tonight. Will you join me? You could take me to your favorite bar if you have one around here.”

I’m sorry, I was wrong. But are you sure you really have that kind of money? I don’t want to go Dutch or anything like that. Alright, just in case…

“Yes, I know a good place, but a bit swanky, you know. And I don’t wanna incur your ill-feeling taking you there, …”

“That’s all right. Three thousand yen would take care of that, I think. Here, you can have it. Let’s fritter it away between the two of us!”

“No, no, no. I don’t like the responsibility that comes with keeping someone’s money—it interferes with my merriment, you know.”

Ugly, yet quite voluble. A man who writes has this unique air of simplicity about him. An air of raffishness. Mozart is Mozart. A literary stripling, a literary stripling. Very funny how it naturally falls into place like that.

“OK, so, shall we have a serious talk about literature, then? Indeed, I’ve been really interested in your work from the beginning, but my editor-in-chief is a bit of a, you know, a stick-in-the-mud.”

I’ll take him to Ye Takeda Tavern. If memory serves, I’ve still got a thousand yen or so on account there, so I’ll have him take care of that as well.

“Oh, this place?”

“Yes, a bit of a dingy place, but I like this kind of ambience. What about you?”

“Not half bad.”

“OK. Sounds like we have the same taste. Let’s drink! Here’s to you! Taste is a complicated thing. Out of a thousand abhorrences is born a single taste. One with no taste, therefore, has nothing to abhor.

Let’s drink! Here’s to you! Let’s talk away the night! Oh, you are more reticent than I thought. I admonish against reticent. I can’t triumph over it. It is our archenemy. Talking like this constitutes utmost self-sacrifice, and for most people, the highest form of charity. And in it is no expectation of return, yea a charity. But also thou shalt love thy enemies. I cannot but love him who animates me. Our enemies always, without fail, enliven us. Here’s to you! Fools believe it’s flippant to fool around, and, by some accounts, they also believe that puns don’t constitute retorts. They also demand so-called frankness. But frankness is to acquit yourself like an insentient being. That means they account others insentient, too. Those overly sensitive, aware of other people’s pains, find it hard to be frank. Frankness, therefore, is violence. That’s why I cannot bring myself around to liking old hands. Maybe, it’s just that I am afeard of their skill. (It lacks morality of wolves to vilely raven sheep. Utterly repellent. I should eat those sheep.) How the world is pullulating with those who could say crude things at the slightest poke! In the first place, good intuition is an ignis fatuus. Intuition unaccompanied by wisdom—what is it but a mere accident? Just a fluke.

Let’s drink! Here’s to you! Let’s talk! Our archenemy is reticence. Somehow, the more I speak, the more uncertain I get. Someone is pulling my sleeve, I want to look back. Ha…yes, I’m just one of the ruck, too…The greatest are the ones who have trusted their judgment to the fullest. That also holds true of fools, though. So much for ill-talking. I myself esteem this behavior beneath gentility. Ill-talking partly reflects the parsimony of the person opposite you.

Let’s drink! Let’s talk about literature! Literary theory intrigues, doesn’t it? Aye, new writers are new writers, old hands, old hands. It’s interesting how I’m naturally inclined to think that way. OK, here’s a food for thought. As a new writer, what do you think you have to do to endear yourself to three million readers? It’s an intractable question, I know. But never let it ever discourage you. Now, look—it’s a much more manageable enterprise than to endeavor to remain out of favor with more than a hundred people specially picked. Writers loved by millions of readers will often love themselves. By the same token, writers loved by but a small minority will not love themselves. That’s a mean existence. Fortunately, in your case, you love your own work, which denotes your potential success as a mainstream writer, loved by three million readers. Don’t get discouraged. To use a word gaining currency in the vernacular, you’ve got potential.

Let’s drink! Here’s to you! Sir, would your grace like your work read by only one reader a thousand times, or rather by a hundred thousand readers only once? Which would you prefer? By all means! By all means! You’ve got potential. Aping Kafu is no problem whatever. This matter of originality basically boils down to the mechanics of the stomach—to whether, after their ingestion, others’ nutrients come out fully digested or not, whether they come out in the form of feces, unaltered; of course, the latter is out of the question, but if they are digested at all, no problem. No writer, since high antiquity, has ever been original. Those truly deserving of the epithet are not only unknown by anyone anywhere; they elude our best essay at their detection. So, ‘tis pointless to be uptight as regards this. But you’ll often cross paths with toffee-nosed writers proclaiming originality, but you can dismiss them as rank fools. Just trifle with them. Ah, gotta sigh. The road ahead of you is so vast, so wide. Apropos of “wide,” why don’t you title your next book, “Wide Is the Gate”? For the word “gate” has a depth of historical connotation, I hear.

Excuse me, I’m barfing up a bit…

…OK, yeah, I’m fine. These drinks are not very good. Phew, now I feel liberated—I’d been squeezed in the dull grip of nausea all along. Praise isn’t your best drinking pal. By the by, about Valéry…oops, I finally blabbed his name—I’ve let myself fall upon the sword of thy silence. Most of what I’ve said tonight is from his literary theories. So much for originality. I finally heaved it up, in the original form, for my stomach had been queasy and therefore couldn’t digest it. I could rabbit on and on if that’s your inclination but it would be far more expedient to just give thee his book right here. I got it at a secondhand bookstore before I met thee, and all I’ve talked about tonight is what I’d picked up on the train today, hot-and-fresh wisdom, so it’s still got vividness of memory but tomorrow it’ll very likely lapse into oblivion. If thou read’st Valéry, then expect Valéry; if Montagne, then Montagne; if Pascal, then Pascal. Permission to commit suicide is given but to men of absolute felicity…this also from Valéry. Not bad, is it? We can’t even kill ourselves. Here, take it thou. Hey, hostess! Reckon the account-s! All of them! All right, then, good talking with thee. Thou shalt be light as a bird, not as a feather, according to that book… Now, what shall I do?”

The bareheaded, disheveled, lanky young man in a blouson flirted his wings and mounted the air, even as a waterfowl. ❖

*1 Refers to Emperor Meiji, characterized by his flamboyant beard and mustache.
*2 川柳 in Chinese characters; the first character reads “kawa” or “gawa,” meaning a “river”; the second, “yanagi,” meaning a “willow.”
If you read the word backward, it reads “yanagi-gawa,” hence the young man’s name.
*3 A loach-based pot dish, originating in Edo, the former name of Tokyo. Often mixed with egg.
*4 Japanese author, playwright, essayist, and diarist (real name: Sokichi Nagai); known for his unaffected, modern style.
*5 Literally, 火男 (hi-otoko) or a “fire man” in Japanese folklore. Often used as the face of a festival mask.

http://www.aozora.gr.jp/cards/000035/files/2295_15090.html
English translation © 2015 Hirotoshi Kimura. All rights reserved.