Tuesday, 27 August 2013

A Bunch of Grapes

[You may want to check the warning on this blog's translations.]

I had meant to make inaccessible Japanese works available, when I started. But in this case, after finishing my draft, I did an internet search and found that there is at least one book with a translation of the short story translated here. In addition, there is a translation online by Takumi KASHIMA and Loretta LORENZ in The journal of Nagasaki University of Foreign Studies here.

有島武郎 (ARISHIMA Takeo, 1878-1923) is a major writer of the Taishou period. 一房の葡萄 ('A Bunch of Grapes') is his best known children's story, first published in 1920. There is a page on the story, showing Arishima's illustration, here. You can read it online at Aozora Bunko, here.

Translation after the break.



When I was small I loved drawing. The school I went to was in the Yamate area of Yokohama. As only westerners were living around there, the teachers in my school too were all westerners. As I went to and from school I always walked along a seaside street lined with western hotels and westernersʼ businesses and so on. If you stood on the bay side of the street and looked out, on the pure blue sea there were lines of battleships and merchant ships, smoke was rising from their chimneys, flags of all countries were stretched from mast to mast. It was so beautiful it hurt the eyes. I often stood on the bank looking over that scene. Then when I got home I would try painting as much as I could remember as beautifully as I could. But that translucent seeming seaʼs indigo, the white sailing vesselsʼ crimson paint near the water line – I just could not bring these out right with the colours I had. I would paint and paint, but I could never get colours like I saw in the real scene.

I thought of the western paints that a school friend had. That friend was (yet again) a westerner, and since he was also two years older than me, he was so tall I had to look up at him. The paints that this boy, Jim, had were high quality imports. Inside a light wooden box, twelve paint colours, hardened into rectangles like little ink blocks, were lined up in two rows. All the colours were beautiful, but the beauty of the indigo and crimson was amazing. Although Jim was much bigger than me, his pictures were really clumsy. Even so, painting with those colours, even a poor drawing was transformed and looked beautiful. I was always envious of that. If only I had those colours, I could paint the sea scene so that it really looked like the sea, I thought, grumbling at my own bad colours. Once that thought had occurred to me, from that day on I wanted and wanted Jim’s paints unbearably. But I could not work up the courage to ask papa or mama to please buy them for me. So for several days I just went on thinking about them in my heart day after day.

I cannot remember now when it was, but it would have been some time in autumn. The grapes were just ripening. As often before the onset of winter the sky was clear through to its furthest depths. We were eating our packed lunches together with the teacher; but even in the middle of that lively lunch my heart could not calm down, filled with a darkness that contrasted with the bright sky. I was sunk in my own thoughts. If anyone had noticed, I am sure that my face looked pale. I wanted Jim’s paints so desperately that I could not bear it. Thinking that Jim must surely know what I was thinking in my heart, I secretly looked at his face and found that he looked quite unaware, laughing and talking excitedly to the boy next to him. But that laughter seemed like the laughter of someone who knew what I was thinking, and what he was saying could be, ‘Look now! That Japanese boy is going to take my paints, I’m sure.’ I felt horrible. But the more Jim seemed to suspect me, the more I desperately wanted his paints.


I was perhaps a nice looking child, but I was weak in both body and spirit. On top of that out of cowardice I was the sort who would never say what I wanted to say. So people did not make much of me and I had no friends. When lunch was over the other children rushed out of the yard and began chasing round. Only I, on that day more than ever strangely downcast, went into the classroom alone. For eyes accustomed to the brightness outside, the classroom now seemed dark, like the feeling in my heart. As I sat in my place my eyes would sometimes turn to Jim’s desk. If you lifted the lid, carved with various jokes and quite black with grime, inside along with books and exercise books and writing slates, was the box of paints, its wood the colour of butterscotch. And inside that, little ink block shaped indigo and crimson colours .... I felt my face grow red and looked outside. But I could not help but turn my eyes back to Jim’s desk. My heart was beating in my breast so hard that it hurt. I sat unmoving in my chair, but the restlessness in me felt like being chased by a monster in a dream.

The bell for class clang out. Without thinking I stood up in panic. Through the window I could see the other schoolchildren laughing and shouting as they ran to wash their hands in the washroom. Suddenly, with a terrible icy feeling in my head, I tottered to Jim’s place. Almost in a dream, I lifted the lid. Inside as I had thought, mixed in with notebooks and pencil case, there was the paintbox I remembered. I do not know why, but after looking round left and right and deciding that no-one was looking, I hurriedly opened the lid, took out the indigo and scarlet colours, and shoved them in my pocket. Then I raced to join the others waiting in line for the teacher as always.

Accompanied by the young woman teacher, we went into the classroom and sat at our desks. I desperately wanted to know what kind of face Jim was making, but there was no way I could turn round towards him. Still as no-one seemed to have noticed what I had done, I was half on edge, half relieved. The young woman teacher was my favourite; but what she was saying then passed through my ears without my taking in a word. The teacher too sometimes seemed to look my way with surprise.

But, that day only, I did not want to look in the teacher’s eyes. The hour passed like that. Thinking all the time that the others were all whispering something to each other, I felt the hour go by.

The bell to leave class rang, and I gave a sigh of relief. But as soon as the teacher had gone, one of the largest, and also best, students in my class said, ‘Come here a moment,’ grasping my elbow. In shocked reaction I felt a trembling in my heart, like when I was called out by the teacher for not doing my homework. But thinking that I had to behave as unknowing as I could, I put on an unconcerned face and let myself be led into a corner of the playground.

‘You’ve got Jim’s paints, I take it. Hand them over!’ With those words the boy pushed an open hand in front of me.

Paradoxically, my heart grew calmer at the accusation. ‘As if! I haven’t got them,’ I blurted out.

Then Jim came up to me along with three or four of his friends, and answered me, his voice a little shaky, ‘I looked in my paintbox before lunch break. There wasn’t one missing. And then when lunch break was over, two of them were gone. And you were the only one in the classroom during break, weren’t you?’

I saw it was no good. Blood came suddenly rushing up into my head and my face became bright red. At that one of the boys standing there suddenly stuck his hands in my pockets. I did my best not to let him, but I could not fight against all of them. From out of my pockets, one after another, along with marbles (what they call bee-dama now) and lead fighting cards and so on, they grasped and pulled out the two paint blocks. With hostile faces that said, ‘Look at that!’ they glared at me coldly. My body started to shiver and my eyes grew dark. Although it was good weather, although everyone was running around playing, enjoying the break, I alone was sunk in misery. Why had I done it? It had come to a point where things could never be made good. There was no hope left for me. With those thoughts, weakling that I was, I became so lonely and so sad that I burst out crying.

‘You won’t get anywhere crying at us,’ the able child said, mocking and angry. Everyone closed in on me, surrounding me, and set to dragging me up to the second floor. I did what I could not to go; but in the end they dragged me along by force and made me climb the stairs. That was where the teacher in charge of us – my favourite teacher – had her room.

Jim knocked on the teacher’s door. Knocking was how we asked if we could come in, tapping on the door. From inside we heard the teacher’s gentle Come in.ʼ I never went into that room more unhappily than then.

The teacher was working on some papers. As we all came tumbling in, she looked surpised. But, smoothing her hair with her right hand – although she was a woman, it was cut off short at her neck, like a man’s – she turned her face, as gentle as ever, towards us, and with a slight tilt of her head seemed to ask was there something we wanted. The able tall child came forward and told the teacher all about how I had stolen Jim’s paints. The teacher’s expression became a little concerned and she looked earnestly at the faces of the others and at me, half crying. Then she asked me, ‘Is this true?’

It was bitter to tell the teacher I was so fond of that I was such a horrible person. So instead of answering I burst into tears for real.

The teacher looked at me for a while, then turned to the other children and said calmly, ‘You can go now,’ and sent them back out. The children, a little unsatisfied, crowded back out and down the stairs.

For a while the teacher said nothing. She didn’t look towards me, but stared at her own nails. Finally she got up calmly and coming over she bent down and embracing my shoulder she said quietly, ‘Have you given the paints back?’

I really wanted the teacher to know that they had been returned. I nodded emphatically.

‘You recognize that what you did was a horrible thing?’ the teacher spoke calmly again, and I could not bear it. My body was shaking, and though I tried to bite my lips shut, a wailing came out, and tears poured from my eyes without stopping. Right now, hugged by the teacher like that, I wanted to die.

‘Won’t you stop crying? If you understand, that’s enough. So let’s stop crying, hmm? For the next hour I won’t make you come to the classroom. So stay in my room. Just stay here calmly. Stay here till I get back from the classroom. Yes?’

With those words she made me sit on the sofa. At that point the bell rang for study. So she picked up her books from the desk. Looking my way, she plucked a bunch of western grapes from the vine that climbed the side of the building as far as the second floor window. She put it in my lap, where I was still crying like a baby, and calmly left the room.


The shouts and laughter of the children outside suddenly grew quiet as they all came in for class. I was so terribly lonely that I could not help but be sad. Thinking how I had made the teacher I was so fond of miserable, it seemed that I had done a very bad thing. I had no energy to eat grapes or anything. I just sat there still crying.

I suddenly felt a hand shaking my shoulder and opened my eyes. At some point I had cried myself to sleep in the teacher’s room, it seemed. The rather thin, tall teacher was looking down at me and smiling. Sleep had improved my mood, and I had forgotten what had just happened. I smiled back a little embarrassed. The grapes started to slide off my knees and with a hasty catch I got them back. At that moment I remembered the miserable truth, and the smile and all expression faded from my face.

‘Please don’t make such a sad face! Everyone has gone home. So you go home too! Then tomorrow, whatever happens, you have to come to school. If I don’t see your face, I’ll be sad. I really will.’

Saying this the teacher quietly put the bunch of grapes in my satchel. I walked home along the sea promenade as always, looking at the sea and the boats without interest. Then I ate the grapes, tasting their sweetness.

But when the next day came, I just could not face going to school. I wished I had a stomach ache or a headache, but just that day I did not have any pain, not even a bad tooth. I hated it, but I had no choice but to leave the house. I walked dragging my feet and sunk in thought. But remembering what the teacher had said when we parted, whatever else, I could not help but want to see her face at least. If I did not go, the teacher would definitely be unhappy. I wanted her gentle eyes to see me one more time. For that one thing alone, I walked through the school gates.

To my surprise, as soon as I did so, Jim came racing over, as if he had been waiting for me, and grasped my hand. Then, as if he had quite forgotten yesterday’s business, with a friendly grip on my hand he dragged me along quite bewildered and led me to the teacher’s room. I had no idea what was going on. I had expected that when I came to school that everyone would be looking at me from a distance and talking about me, ‘Look! There’s the Japanese boy who steals and lies.’ To be treated like this instead was unsettling.

The teacher – perhaps she had heard our footsteps – opened the door before Jim knocked. The two of us went into the room.

‘Jim, you’re a good boy. You really understood what I said, didn’t you? Jim says he doesn’t need you to apologize. If the two of you will be good friends from now on, then we can say it's settled. Shake hands properly.’ The teacher smilingly made us face each other. I was confused at getting off too easily and held back. Jim enthusiastically lifted my dangling hand and shook it firmly. I did not know what to say to express my pleasure, and did no more than give and embarrassed smile. Jim’s face was full of cheerfulness. The teacher asked me brightly, ‘Did you like the grapes yesterday?’

My face grew red and I could only admit that, yes, I had liked them.

‘In that case I’ll give you some more,’ she said. She stretched out of the window in her bright white linen dress and plucked a bunch of grapes. The dusty purple grapes rested in the whiteness of her left hand. With long silver coloured scissors she cut them, snip, in two and gave them to me and Jim. I can still clearly remember the loveliness of those purple grapes piled up on her white palm.

After that I became a slightly better child than before, and a little less awkward and self conscious.

Even so, I wonder what became of that kind teacher I liked so much. I know we will never meet again, but even now I sometimes think, ‘Ah, if only that teacher were here.’ When autumn comes the bunches of grapes become a beautiful dusty purple, but the marble white hand that held them is nowhere to be seen.


1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the translation. I just knew the novel from the TV show 早子先生、結婚するって本当ですか