The Life Erotic

Scandalize everyone at least once

Like clustered nerve endings on a body, pleasure quarters—those designated domains of vice and revelry—dot the globe. In the 1920s, the capital of Japanese fun was the city of Asakusa. Swarming with prostitutes, street performers, and visiting crowds, Asakusa enchanted novelist Yasunari Kawabata as a young man, and in 1929, the future Nobel laureate began writing a novel conjuring its raffish life. First published serially in a newspaper, The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa has finally arrived in English, accompanied by its original illustrations. For his chronicles, Kawabata borrowed techniques from European modernists—fractured narratives, self-reflexivity—and trained the glance of his unnamed flaneur-narrator on the city's urchins. As members of the Scarlet Gang, these scamps aspire to "scandalize everyone at least once." One of the gang's leaders is the lovely, headstrong Yumiko, who avenges her sister's broken heart by kissing the jilter with arsenic-coated lips.

Poisonous embraces notwithstanding, Asakusa feels less sinister than playfully bawdy. The characters are sketched cartoonishly, an impression reinforced by the illustrations. In her introduction, translator Alisa Freedman confides that Kawabata claimed to be nauseated when he later read this book. While it probably won't provoke the same response in readers, Scarlet Gang is equally unlikely to elicit other strong reactions. Recognizable Kawabata themes, such as erotic vengeance, are here but unripe; in his mature work, the passion is troublingly forceful, and the arsenic in the kisses isn't literal. This volume's greatest value is as an artifact: of early Kawabata and of a lost refuge of decadence. It's worth the romp, if only for images like this one: "[E]legant ladies . . . dance sedately, until, suddenly, from among them, a flapper, a thousand years newer, dances the Charleston until she passes out." That flapper is a true Asakusan.

 
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