January 26, 2016 | by Dan Piepenbring
A lot of things are a century old this year: Boeing, Roald Dahl, the Professional Golfers’ Association. Another is Akutagawa Ryūnosuke’s short story “The Nose,” published in January 1916 in a student magazine called Shinshichō.
“The Nose,” which bears no relation to Gogol’s famous story of the same name, is a pretty standard parable about vanity. It stars Zenchi Naigu, a Buddhist priest with a massive schnoz—he needs aides to hold it aloft with a stick during meals. This is, as you can imagine, kind of unseemly, so Naigu undertakes a series of drastic schnoz-reduction measures, only to realize that his newly unembellished nose makes him even more self-conscious than the original had. He tries to catch a cold so his nose plumps up again. It does. He is at peace. And—scene!
None of this will exactly rewire your brain. But in its vivid, sometimes grotesque details, “The Nose” has staying power, especially in the age of the selfie. A translation by Takashi Kojima renders Naigu’s narcissism especially well:
When there was no one about, he would examine his nose in the mirror and look at it from various angles, taxing his ingenuity to the utmost … prodding his cheeks, or putting his finger on the tip of his chin … It often happened that the more he studied his nose, the longer it seemed to be.
You can imagine him scrolling diligently through every available Instagram filter, mastering his duck face and his fish gape. It’s only fitting that such a man would pursue a gruesome quasi-rhinoplasty, yes? With the help of a trusty disciple, Naigu boils his nose and then watches, seemingly disembodied, as it’s trampled on:
His disciple brought in an iron ladle, water so hot that no one could have put a finger into it … His nose, no matter how long it was soaked in the scalding water, was immune from ill effect … the disciple set about trampling about on that steaming object … His nose having undergone this treatment for some time, what seemed to be grains of millet began to appear, at which sight his disciple stopped trampling and said, “I was told to pull them out with tweezers.”
The nose looked like a plucked and roasted chicken … Zenchi reluctantly watched his disciple extract, from the pores of his nose, feathers of fat curled to half an inch in diameter … “Now, your Reverence, we have only to boil it once more, and it’ll be all right.”
The same thing that gives Ryūnosuke’s story its satirical force is what makes it so uncanny, at least to a contemporary reader: the guy can’t feel his nose. This proboscis of his is apparently without nerve endings—a numb hunk of flesh protruding from his face. In the story’s most haunting moment, Zenchi’s disciple asks for confirmation that his insistent trampling is totally painless; Zenchi, unable to shake his head because his nose is pinned down, can only fix his gaze on his disciple’s chapped feat and murmur that the procedure is, if anything, comfortable.
There’s a book to be written about the evolution of the nose in pop culture (retroussé, button-cute, Roman, Nixonian) though maybe only the nasally well-endowed (read: me) would take an interest in it. “The Nose,” with its distended psychology, would rate an entire chapter—read it before bed and it will, despite its seeming simplicity, wend its way into your dreams. It launched a successful career for Ryūnosuke, who’s still known as “the father of the Japanese short story.” He suffered hallucinations and anxiety—both, sadly, are on evidence in “The Nose”—and committed suicide when he was only thirty-five.
As for the ending, I won’t spoil it or the nose re-enlargement saga for you, except to say that it leads to a stunner of a last sentence: “His long nose dangled in the autumn breeze of early morning.”
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.