On a rainy afternoon, at an art exhibition at the Academy Hall, I discovered a miniature oil painting in the corner of one of the rear galleries. To say that I discovered it is not an understatement—the painting was shoddily framed and hung out of sight in the worst possible light as if meant to be forgotten or shunned. It was called “The Swamp,” and its style was as unfamiliar to me as the artist’s name. Perhaps because the work was minute in size and the subject matter superficially clichéd with its imagery of floods, thickening mud, wild foliage and the like, I saw no one stop in front of it, much less even begin to appreciate what a remarkable achievement that it was: the artist, for one, used no green on the plants; the common reeds, poplars, and figs were a viscous yellow that was textured like wet wall plaster. At first, I couldn’t decide if the painting represented the artist’s perception as it was, or if it was a kind of caricature of it. I admired his nuances of line and shade, and became convinced that the painting could only have been done by someone with a visionary eye: it had frightening power, but one that revealed itself only by degrees. I was entranced by the foreground mud, the intricate yellows of the plants, feeling myself inside the scene, ankle deep in smooth dense mud, the sounds of my treading feet. In this modestly sized oil, the unknown artist demonstrated a command of nature on par with the canonical greats. Of all the paintings on display that rainy afternoon, some by the most celebrated masters of our time, none approached the eminence of “The Swamp.”
“You’re his number one fan,” a voice announced with sarcastic intimacy, and a hand clapped on my shoulder, shaking me from the sanctum of my thoughts. I turned toward the man, and recognized him as the art critic for one of the papers. I had spoken with him on a few occasions and had never cared for him.
“What’s so special about it?” the critic said, pointing at the swamp with the tip of his manicured beard. He wore on his spry body a brown suit cut to figure in a style that was ubiquitous at the time, and he conducted himself snobbishly, with the calculated grace of a man who believes in his infallibility. I addressed him with extreme reluctance.
“It’s a masterpiece,” I said.
“A masterpiece? It’s interesting, I’ll concede that.”
He erupted in laughter. I could see his belly punching the inside of his shirt. Some people glared at us, thinking that we were a pair, which magnified my antipathy.
“It’s a fascinating story, since it’s the only painting in the exhibition that’s not by a member of the Academy. The artist used to come in all the time and pester the office about showing his work. No one took him seriously of course, and then one day he stopped coming and everyone forgot about him until his family began showing up in his place with his paintings in tow, making the same request. And their persistence paid off, the Academy finally relented and accepted this one, whatever their motives, as long as the family didn’t mind it hanging back here.”
“Is the artist dead?”
“Dead when he was living.”
“What do you mean?” I said, more curious now than miffed.
“He went mad, haven’t you heard?”
“He was mad when he did this painting?”
“Obviously yes.” The volume of his voice had spiked.
“No sound mind paints colors this detached from reality. But we disagree. You say this painting is a masterpiece. For me that’s perplexing.”
He chuckled pompously. He seemed to think that I was ashamed of not knowing the backstory of the work, and more so he tried to exploit my ignorance by imposing his viewpoint on me. But his words were ineffectual. I was arrested with wonder again by the swamp, and my vision of the artist as a petulant man, tormented by anxieties and an exquisite eye for the light.
The critic rested his case, sharpening his look of self-belief, “The man went mad by attrition, from his inability to get the images from his head onto the canvas. Say what you like, but this is the nature of the work that you prize.”
His lame assessment was the artist’s only recompense from the establishment for a work that had cost his sanity. I peered further into the swamp, and had a feeling again of unsettling clarity, seeing there the turbid waters and skies, the common reeds, poplars, and figs textured like pulpy yellow mud, and as dynamic as nature itself.
I looked at the critic and repeated myself.
“It’s a masterpiece.”
Walking on the bank of the swamp—
I don’t know if it’s night or day. I hear the wail of the blue herons, see the watery light of dusk leaking through the canopy, the shadows of the creeping vines, the swamp brimming with towers of reeds. No motion in the water or the floating duckweeds, no ripples from the fish.
I don’t know if it’s night or day.
I have walked on this bank for days, my body drinking cold dawn light, the stench of bog and reed. The frogs in the branches of the vine-swathed trees croak in turn at the dim star glow.
Walking on the bank of the swamp—
The swamp brimming with towers of reeds.
It is said that a world once existed in the reeds—even now, I believe, this world exists. I hear its strange and lovely vestiges, songs on the air from L’invitation au Voyage. Only where are the nectary scents of the Sumatran forget-me-nots in the bog and reed?
I don’t know if it’s night or day. In search of this world, I have walked for days among the vine-swathed trees in a state of waking dream. Flourishing around me, the towers of reeds, bound by boundless swamp, which I must enter to find the forget-me-nots.
Wading in, I come upon the gnarled torso of an ancient weeping willow looming above the reeds. From the tree, I can dive into the swamp, into that strange and lovely world of dreams.
I climb the trunk of the tree, and at the top I throw myself headfirst into the swamp. On my descent, I hear the chanting reeds, the murmuring waters, and the frogs gasping as I break through the duckweeds and my body sinks like a stone to the swamp floor, the image of infinite little green flames flashing and flitting around me.
I don’t know if it’s night or day.
Velvet mud entombs my body, immaculately blue waters eddy around me.
There is no strange and lovely world. By whom was I deceived? Was it myself or the swamp nymph singing L’invitation au Voyage?
A slender green shoot grows from the dead man’s lips, punctures the surface and continues skyward, blossoming into a glorious white waterlily above the reeds and reek of duckweed.
Perhaps this is the world that I was looking for—
The musing corpse, its eternal gaze at the pearlescent waterlily.
Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927), born in Tokyo, Japan, was the author of more than 350 works of fiction and non-fiction. Japan’s premier literary award for emerging writers, the Akutagawa Prize, is named after him.
Ryan Choi lives in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, where he was born and raised. His work appears in New England Review, Harper’s, BOMB, New York Tyrant, The Yale Review, and elsewhere.