W.H Auden, Kenzaburō Ōe, Lydia Davis and more

Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994, Kenzaburo Ōe’s (OH-way) short story ‘われらの狂気を生き延びる道を教えよ’, ‘Warera no kyōki wo ikinobiru michi wo oshieyo’ (translated by John Nathan as ‘Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness’) was published in 1969, five years after his novel ‘A Personal Matter’ which dealt with the birth of a disabled child (based on his own son Hikari). This story also tells of a protagonist who has a brain damaged child, the protagonist known only as the “fat man” (I wonder if Lydia Davis’ short story ‘What She Know’ was influenced by this “fat man”?)

What She Knew

People did not know what she knew, that she was not really a woman but a man, often a fat man, but more often, probably, an old man. The fact that she was an old man made it hard for her to be a young woman. It was hard for her to talk to a young man, for instance, though the young man was clearly interested in her. She had to ask herself, Why is this young man flirting with this old man?

At the opening of the story Ōe’s “fat man” is being thrown into polar bear enclosure. As we later learn he was at the zoo with his disabled son, who he calls by a nickname Eeyore a character from A.A. Milne’s ‘Winnie The Pooh’. What we do know is that the title of the story comes from “a line from a wartime poem by an English poet” a line that resided in the “fat man” “always, as if it were his prayer.” In fact it comes from W.H. Auden’s (British American) poem ‘Commentary’.

Lydia Davis also wrote a short story ‘How W.H. Auden Spends the Night in a Friend’s House:’, I won’t repeat the text of that here, you’ll have to buy her collected short stories, it is about only achieving peaceful sleep with a heavy weight pressing down on him.

Ōe’s setting with a polar bear had me thinking of a recent Japanese writer, Yōko Tawada and her novel ‘Memoirs of a Polar Bear’ which she self-translated into German and Susan Bernofsky translated that version into English!!!

A 50-page short story and oh so many diversions. I will look at the book of four “short novels” that goes under the tile of ‘Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness’ at some later stage as it contains earlier and later works, and many many layers Ōe’s writings. In the meantime, here is the poem by W.H. Auden that resides in Ōe’s “fat man”.


Season inherits legally from dying season;
Protected by the wide peace of the sun, the planets
Continue their circulations; and the galaxy

Is free for ever to revolve like an enormous biscuit:
With all his engines round him and the summer flowers,
Little upon his little earth, man contemplates

The universe of which he is both judge and victim;
A rarity in an uncommon corner, gazes
On the great trackways where his tribe and truth are nothing.

Certainly the growth of the fore-brain has been a success:
Me has not got lost in a backwater like the lampshell
Or the limpet; he has not died out like the super-lizards.

His boneless worm-like ancestors would be amazed
At the upright position, the breasts, the four-chambered heart,
The clandestine evolution in the mother s shadow.

“Sweet is it,’’ say the doomed, “to be alive though wretched,”
And the young emerging from the closed parental circle,
To whose uncertainty the certain years present

Their syllabus of limitless anxiety and labour,
At first feel nothing but the gladness of their freedom,
Are happy in the new embraces and the open talk.

But liberty to be and weep has never been sufficient;
The winds surround our griefs, the unfenced sky
To all our failures is a taciturn unsmiling witness.

And not least here, among this humorous and hairless people
Who like a cereal have inherited these valleys:
Tarim nursed them; Thibet was the tall rock of their protection,

And where the Yellow River shifts its course, they learnt
How to live well, though ruin threatened often.
For centuries they looked in fear towards the northern defiles,

But now must turn and gather like a fist to strike
Wrong coming from the sea, from those whose paper houses
Tell of their origin among the coral islands;

Who even to themselves deny a human freedom,
And dwell in the estranging tyrant’s vision of the earth
In a calm stupor under their blood-spotted flag.

Here danger works a civil reconciliation,
Interior hatreds are resolved upon this foreign foe,
And will-power to resist is growing like a prosperous city.

For the invader now is deadly and impartial as a judge:
Down country footpaths, from each civic sky,
His anger blows alike upon the rich, and all

Who dwell within the crevices of destitution,
On those with a laborious lifetime to recall, and those,
The innocent and short whose dreams contain no children.

While in an international and undamaged quarter,
Casting our European shadows on Shanghai,
Walking unhurt among the banks, apparently immune

Below the monuments of an acquisitive society,
With friends and books and money and the traveller s freedom,
We are compelled to realize that our refuge is a sham.

For this material contest that has made Hongkew
A terror and a silence, and Chapei a howling desert,
Is but the local variant of a struggle in which all,

The elderly, the amorous, the young, the handy and
               the thoughtful,
Those to whom feeling is a science, those to whom study
Of all that can be added and compared is a consuming love,

With those whose brains are empty as a school in August,
And those in whom the urge to action is so strong
They cannot read a letter without whispering, all

In cities, deserts, ships, in lodgings near the port,
Discovering the past of strangers in a library,
Creating their own future on a bed, each with his treasure,

Self-confident among the laughter and the petits verres,
Or motionless and lonely like a moping cormorant,
In all their living are profoundly implicated.

This is one sector and one movement of the general war
Between the dead and the unborn, the Real and the Pretended,
Which for the creature who creates, communicates, and chooses,

The only animal aware of lack of finish,
In essence is eternal. When we emerged from holes
And blinked in the warm sunshine of the Laufen Ice Retreat,

Thinking of Nature as a close and loyal kinsman,
On every acre the opponents faced each other,
And we were far within the zone where casualties begin.

Now in a world that has no localized events,
Where not a tribe exists without its dossier,
And the machine has taught us how, to the Non-Human,

That unprogressive blind society that knows
No argument except the absolute and violent veto,
Our colours, creeds and sexes are identical,

The issue is the same. Some uniforms are new,
Some have changed sides; but the campaign continues:
Still unachieved is Jen, the Truly Human.

This is the epoch of the Third Great Disappointment:
The First was the collapse of that slave-owning empire
Whose yawning magistrate asked, ‘‘What is truth?’’

Upon its ruins rose the Plainly Visible Churches:
Men camped like tourists under their tremendous shadows,
United by a common sense of human failure,

Their certain knowledge only of the timeless fields
Where the Unchanging Happiness received the faithful,
And the Eternal Nightmare waited to devour the doubters.

In which a host of workers, famous and obscure,
Meaning to do no more than use their eyes,
Not knowing what they did, then sapped belief;

Put in its place a neutral dying star,
Where Justice could not visit. Self was the one city,
The cell where each must find his comfort and his pain,

The body nothing but a useful favourite machine
To go upon errands of love and to run the house,
While the mind in its study spoke with its private God.

But now that wave which already was washing the heart,
When the cruel Turk stormed the gates of Constantine s city,
When Galileo muttered to himself, “sed movet,

And Descartes thought, “I am because I think,”
Today, all spent, is silently withdrawing itself:
Unhappy he or she who after it is sucked.

Never before was the Intelligence so fertile,
The Heart more stunted. The human field became
Hostile to brotherhood and feeling like a forest.

Machines devised by harmless clergymen and boys
Attracted men like magnets from the marl and clay
Into towns on the coal-measures, to a kind of freedom,

Where the abstinent with the landless drove a bitter bargain,
But sowed in that act the seeds of an experienced hatred,
Which, germinating long in tenement and gas-lit cellar,

Is choking now the aqueducts of our affection.
Knowledge of their colonial suffering has cut off
The Hundred Families like an attack of shyness;

The apprehensive rich pace up and down
Their narrow compound of success; in every body
The ways of living are disturbed; intrusive as a sill,

Fear builds enormous ranges casting shadows,
Heavy, bird-silencing, upon the outer world,
Hills that our grief sighs over like a Shelley, parting

All that we feel from all that we perceive,
Desire from Data; and the Thirteen gay Companions
Grow sullen now and quarrelsome as mountain tribes.

We wander on the earth, or err from bed to bed
In search of home, and fail, and weep for the lost ages
Before Because became As If, or rigid Certainty

The Chances Are. The base hear us, and the violent
Who long to calm our guilt with murder, and already
Have not been slow to turn our wish to their advantage.

On every side they make their brazen offer:
Now in that Catholic country with the shape of Cornwall,
Where Europe first became a term of pride,

North of the Alps where dark hair turns to blonde,
In Germany now loudest, land without a centre
Where the sad plains are like a sounding rostrum,

And on these tidy and volcanic summits near us now,
From which the Black Stream hides the Tuscarora Deep,
The voice is quieter but the more inhuman and triumphant.

By wire and wireless, in a score of bad translations,
They give their simple message to the world of man :
Man can have Unity if Man will give up Freedom.

The State is real, the Individual is wicked;
Violence shall synchronize your movements like a tune,
And Terror like a frost shall halt the flood of thinking.

Barrack and bivouac shall he your friendly refuge,
And racial pride shall tower like a public column
And confiscate for safety every private sorrow.

Leave Truth to the police and us; we know the Good;
We build the Perfect City time shall never alter;
Our Law shall guard you always like a cirque of mountains,

Your ignorance keep off evil like a dangerous sea;
You shall be consummated in the General Will,
Your children innocent and charming as the beasts.”

All the great conquerors sit upon their platform,
Lending their sombre weight of practical experience:
Ch’in Shih Huang Ti, who burnt the scholars’ books,

Chaka the mad, who segregated the two sexes,
And Genghis Khan, who thought mankind should be destroyed,
And Diocletian the administrator, make impassioned speeches.

Napoleon claps who found religion useful,
And all who passed deception of the People, or who said
Like Little Frederick, “I shall see that it is done.”

While many famous clerks support their programme:
Plato the good, despairing of the average man,
With sad misgiving signs their manifesto;

Shang-tzu approves their principle of Nothing Private;
The author of The Prince will heckle; Hobbes will canvass,
With generalizing Hegel and quiet Bosanquet.

And every family and every heart is tempted:
The earth debates; the Fertile Crescent argues;
Even the little towns upon the way to somewhere,

Those desert flowers the aeroplane now fertilizes,
Quarrel on this; in England far away,
Behind the high tides and the navigable estuaries;

In the Far West, in absolutely free America,
In melancholy Hungary, and clever France
Where ridicule has acted a historic rôle,

And here where the rice-grain nourishes these patient households
The ethic of the feudal citadel has impregnated,
Thousands believe, and millions are half-way to a conviction.

Nor do our leaders help; we know them now
For humbugs full of vain dexterity, invoking
A gallery of ancestors, pursuing still the mirage

Of long dead grandeurs whence the interest has absconded,
As Fahrenheit in an odd corner of great Celsius’ kingdom
Might mumble of the summers measured once by him.

Yet all the same we have our faithful sworn supporters
Who never lost their faith in knowledge or in man,
But worked so eagerly that they forgot their food

And never noticed death or old age coming on,
Prepared for freedom as Kuo Hsi for inspiration,
Waiting it calmly like the coming of an honoured guest.

Some looked at falsehood with the candid eyes of children,
Some had a woman’s ear to catch injustice,
Some took Necessity, and knew her, and she brought
             forth Freedom.

Some of our dead are famous, but they would not care:
Evil is always personal and spectacular,
But goodness needs the evidence of all our lives,

And, even to exist, it must be shared as truth,
As freedom or as happiness. (For what is happiness
If not to witness joy upon the features of another?)

They did not live to be remembered specially as noble,
Like those who cultivated only cucumbers and melons
To prove that they were rich; and when we praise their names,

They shake their heads in warning, chiding us to give
Our gratitude to the Invisible College of the Humble,
Who through the ages have accomplished everything essential.

And stretch around our struggle as the normal landscape,
And mingle, fluent with our living, like the winds and waters,
The dust of all the dead that reddens every sunset;

Giving us courage to confront our enemies,
Not only on the Grand Canal, or in Madrid,
Across the campus of a university city,

But aid us everywhere, that in the lovers’ bedroom,
The white laboratory, the school, the public meeting,
The enemies of life may be more passionately attacked.

And, if we care to listen, we can always hear them:
“Men are not innocent as beasts and never can be,
Man can improve but never will himself be perfect,

Only the free have disposition to be truthful,
Only the truthful have the interest to be just,
Only the just possess the will-power to be free.

For common justice can determine private freedom,
As a clear sky can tempt men to astronomy,
Or a peninsula persuade them to be sailors.

You talked of Liberty, but were not just; and now
Your enemies have called your bluff; for in your city,
Only the man behind the rifle had free-will.

One wish is common to you both, the wish to build
A world united as that Europe was in which
The flint-faced exile wrote his three-act comedy.

Lament not its decay; that shell was too constricting:
The years of private isolation had their lesson,
And in the interest of intelligence were necessary.

Now in the clutch of crisis and the bloody hour
You must defeat your enemies or perish, hut remember,
Only by those who reverence it can life be mastered;

Only a whole and happy conscience can stand up
And answer their bleak lie; among the just,
And only there, is Unity compatible with Freedom.”

Night falls on China; the great arc of travelling shadow
Moves over land and ocean, altering life:
Thibet already silent, the packed Indias cooling,

Inert in the paralysis of caste. And though in Africa
The vegetation still grows fiercely like the young,
And in the cities that receive the slanting radiations

The lucky are at work, and most still know they suffer.
The dark will touch them soon : night’s tiny noises
Will echo vivid in the owl’s developed ear,

Vague in the anxious sentry’s; and the moon look down
On battlefields and dead men lying, heaped like treasure,
On lovers ruined in a brief embrace, on ships

Where exiles watch the sea: and in the silence
The cry that streams out into the indifferent spaces,
And never stops or slackens, may be heard more clearly.

Above the everlasting murmur of the woods and rivers,
And more insistent than the lulling answer of the waltzes,
Or hum of printing-presses turning forests into lies;

As now I hear it, rising round me from Shanghai,
And mingling with the distant mutter of guerrilla fighting,
The voice of Man : “O teach us to outgrow our madness.

Ruffle the perfect manners of the frozen heart,
And once again compel it to be awkward and alive,
To all it suffered once a weeping witness.

Clear from the head the masses of impressive rubbish;
Rally the lost and trembling forces of the will,
Gather them up and let them loose upon the earth,

Till, as the contribution of our star, we follow
The clear instructions of that Justice, in the shadow
Of Whose uplifting, loving, and constraining power
All human reasons do rejoice and operate.”

-WH Auden

Text taken from the Internet Archive and edited to correct numerous punctuation and spelling errors.


A Personal Matter – Kenzaburō Ōe (tr. John Nathan)

“You’re right about this being limited to me, it’s entirely a personal matter. But with some personal experiences that lead you way into a cave all by yourself, you must eventually come to a side tunnel or something that opens on a truth that concerns not just yourself but everyone.”

Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994, Kenzaburō Ōe is known for his deeply personal works, and he credits his son Hikari, brain damaged from birth, for influencing his literary career.  Ōe claims that he has tried to give his son a “voice” through his writing. Several of Ōe’s books feature a character based on his son and ‘A Personal Matter’ (1964) deals with the birth of a son who has a brain hernia, Hikari was born in 1963.

The novel opens with a sense of foreboding, our protagonist, Bird, looking at the map of Africa in the atlas, a place he wants to escape to:

Shuddering, Bird peered at the details of the map. The ocean surrounding Africa was inked in the teary blue of a winter sky at dawn. Longitudes and latitudes were not the mechanical lines of a compass: the bold strokes evoked the artist’s unsteadiness and caprice. The continent itself resembled the skull of a man who had hung his head. With doleful, downcast eyes, a man with a huge head was gazing at Australia, land of the koala, the platypus, and the kangaroo. The miniature Africa indicating population distribution in a lower corner of the map was like a dead head beginning to decompose; another, veined with transportation routes, was a skinned head with the capillaries painfully exposed. Both these little Africas suggested unnatural death, raw and violent.

At this stage of the book Bird’s wife is still in labour, he is yet to learn of his first-born son being born brain damaged. Wandering the streets and telephoning the hospital each hour Bird wanders into a game arcade where he tests his strength, he is no longer the man he thought he was, reduced from a fighter to a scrawny meek being whose strength is less than the kick from a gang member who are watching him. Once Bird leaves the arcade he is literally, and metaphorically, attacked by the gang, we know that our journey with Bird is going to be deeply personal.

“Brain hernia, we call it. The brain is protruding from a fault in the skull.”

From this point onwards the novel explores a range of emotional responses, Bird a former alcoholic, goes through phases of anger, grief, hopelessness, despair, rejection, guilt, fear:

I’m afraid of the dark recesses where that grotesque baby was created

Shame, after an act of sexual perversion with a former girlfriend Bird is in the “grip of diffidence”.

Bird tried comparing his child who seemed to have two heads with pictures he had seen of mutations caused by radioactivity. But he had only to think to himself about the baby’s abnormality and a sense of extremely personal shame hotly rose into his throat. How could he discuss the misfortune with other people, it was inherent in himself! He had the feeling this would never be a problem he could share with the rest of mankind.

The guilt:

If life was eternal and if there was a god who judges, Bird thought, then he would be found guilty. But his guilt now, like the grief that had assailed him in the ambulance when he had compared the baby to Apollinaire with his head in bandages, tasted primarily of honey.

This is a deeply personal exploration of a man who has a choice, does he keep and rear a handicapped child, does he allow the hospital to operate most likely causing death, does he allow them to slowly starve the child? Interestingly Bird’s wife, his mother and father-in-law are minor players here, the focus is on Bird’s inner turmoil and that of his former girlfriend whose husband had committed suicide.

Set against the backdrop of the Russians resuming nuclear tests there is a hint of the human crisis being faced, Kenzaburō Ōe has written extensively on the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as pressuring the Government after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster and organising antinuclear protests.

Before this novel Kenzaburō Ōe published a series of works incorporating sexual metaphors for the occupation of Japan, and this work does have a chapter with a similar theme, Himoko, Bird’s former girlfriend, is the “Japan” placed in a humiliating position by the oppressor, Bird.

The main character here is called “Bird” and the novel is littered with animal similes:

like a bed of straw for sick livestock
like an angry rat
like a titmouse pecking at millet seeds
like a laughable cartoon bear
like an orangutan sampling a flavour
like a fish with a ripped belly

These examples coming from only five pages of text! A world where nature should be dominant, but the simmering threat of nuclear war poses the question, should I bring a young life into this world?  

An interesting novel that touches on many of Kenzaburō Ōe’s themes, one that is deeply personal, (well it  is ‘A Personal Matter’), however it could also be seen as deeply egotistical and misogynistic. Ōe has gone into the dark cave all by himself, but he discovers a truth that concerns not only himself but everyone. For readers who haven’t come across his works before this is less daunting that more recent works and it would be a nice entry point to his oeuvre.

Yukio Mishima’s “The Sea of Fertility” tetralogy, “The Decay of the Angel”


I have completed reading the final instalment in Yukio Mishima’s “The Sea of Fertility” tetralogy, four novels that follow the life of Shigekuni Honda and his interactions with Kiyoaki Matsugae, Isao Iinuma, Ying Chan and Tōru Yasunaga, supposedly reincarnations. Covering the period October 1912 to November 1970 it is a collection moving through significant historical periods in Japanese history.

Highly symbolic and meditative in style, the four novels are not only difficult to read and digest, a slow reading is almost demanded as you contemplate each reflection, they are also difficult to write about. When I say “difficult” I do not mean your “Finnegan’s Wake” difficult, it is more a case of the narrative arc, character depth and motivations, playing less of a role than the symbolic, the allegoric, the reflective and the meditative.

To recap, the four books that make up the tetralogy are:

Spring Snow translated by Michael Gallagher

Runaway Horses translated by Michael Gallagher

The Temple of Dawn translated by E. Dale Saunders and Cecilia Seqawa Seigle

The Decay of the Angel translated by Edward G. Seidensticker

Interestingly the tone of the novels shifts quite dramatically in the third novel, the feeling of immersion in nature becoming more clinical and then becoming sparse in the final instalment. Is this a reflection on the different translators of the books, or was Yukio Mishima changing his style?

Without revisiting old themes of earth, wind, fire and water, or nationalistic symbols as I have done with previous posts about these books, this time I will simply post a few short thoughts about various questions raised in the final novel.

Chapter Eight, explores in some detail “the five signs…that death has come to an angel”, using various religious texts. There are “variations depending upon the source”, including “lesser and greater” signs;

Here are the five greater signs: the once-immaculate robes are soiled, the flowers in the flowery crown fade and fall, sweat pours from the armpits, a fetid stench envelops the body, the angel is no longer happy in its proper place. (p 53)

Highly symbolic in nature these signs are a glaring motif for the reader to follow, as we observe Honda in old age;

Huge, solid, the buildings spread great wings of steel and glass. Honda said to himself; “The moment I die they will all go.” The thought came to him as a happy one, a sort of revenge. It would be no trouble at all, tearing this world up by the roots and returning it to the void. All he had to do was die. He took a certain minor pride in the thought that an old man who would be forgotten still had in death this incomparably destructive weapon. For him the five signs of decay held no fear. (p55)

Soiled robes, fading flowers worn as a crown, sweat, stench and unhappiness all appear and reappear in various guises throughout. Reincarnated Tōru Yasunaga, for example;

Tōru’s heels looked up from the skirt of his kimono. They were white and wrinkled as those of a drowned corpse, and patches of dirt were scattered like bits of foil over them. The kimono had gone quite limp. Sweat drew clusters of yellow clouds at the neckline.
Honda had for some time been aware of a strange odor. He saw that the dirt and oil on the kimono had mixed with the sweat into the smell as of a dank canal that young men put out in the summer Tōru had lost his fastidiousness. (p219)

Are all the reincarnations angels?

As he lectured to the attentive Tōru, Honda had the feeling that these were really instructions for Kiyoaki and Isao and Ying Chan.
Yes, he should have spoken to them. He should have armed them with the foreknowledge that would keep them from flinging themselves after their destinies, take away their wings, keep them from soaring, make them march in step with the crowd. The world does not approve of flying. Wings are dangerous weapons. They invite self-destruction before they can be used. If he had brought Isao to terms with the fools, then he could have pretended that he knew nothing of wings. (p113)

“Kiyoaki Matsugae was caught by unpredictable love, Isao Iinuma by destiny, Ying Chan by the flesh. And you?” (p206)

As I have previously posted, Mount Fuji becomes a “Temple of Dawn” during the third novel and here the symbolic mountain returns, this time linked to the angels:

He had visited Nihondaira Heights below Fuji, and on his return had stopped by the Mio Grove and seen such treasures as the cloth, probably from Inner Asia, said to be a fragment of the angel’s robe (p9)

We also have the sea as a prominent motif in the final novel;

The sea: a nameless sea, the Mediterranean, the Japan Sea, the Bay of Suruga here before him; a rich, nameless, absolute anarchy, caught after a great struggle as something called “sea,” in fact rejecting a name. (p5)

Recap of Yukio Mishima’s quote about “The Sea of Fertility”; “Or I might say that it superimposes the image of cosmic nihilism on that of the fertile sea.”

There are links and hints in every chapter, a giant circle of reincarnation, revisiting and learning. The four novels weighing in at 1,376 pages (Vintage Classics Editions) means there are opportunities galore to sow a seed and slowly allow it to germinate.

Decay, it is not only for angels, our protagonist is now in his 80’s, his health is failing;

But it had come to seem that there was no distinguishing between pain of the spirit and pain of the flesh. What was the difference between humiliation and a swollen prostate? Between pangs of sorrow and pneumonia? Senility was a proper ailment of both the spirit and the flesh, and the fact that senility was an incurable disease meant that existence was an incurable disease. It was a disease unrelated to existentialist theories, the flesh itself being the disease, latent death.
If the cause of decay was illness, then the fundamental cause of that, the flesh, was illness too. The essence of the flesh was decay. It had its spot in time to give evidence of destruction and decay. (p209-210)

The Vintage Classic edition of Yukio Mishima’s final novel, “The Decay of the Angel”, finishes with “The End: The Sea of Fertility; November 25, 1970”. As we know on that same date the then 45-year-old Yukio Mishima staged a failed coup d’état and then performed seppuku, a ritual suicide originally reserved for samurai. Seen as an honourable way to die, the ritual consists of using a short blade to disembowel oneself, a “kaishakunin” is appointed whose role is to behead the one who has performed the ritual, in Mishima’s case the kaishakunin, political activist Masakatsu Morita, was unable to complete the task and it was then left to Hiroyasu Koga to behead Mishima, and subsequently Morita, who had stabbed himself in the abdomen.

As I have mentioned in previous posts about Yukio Mishima’s final four novels, it is difficult to read these books without the sceptre of his final day looming large over your thoughts, however Yukio Mishima’s attention to detail with minor matters such as clouds, waves, grass, flowers, is often more significant than the death of a major character. The observation of natural elements may run to pages, whilst a death may be a clinical short paragraph. Is he telling us to observe, enrich and submerge ourselves in life?

It is 48 years since Yukio Mishima finished his writing, I do plan to revisit these four novels in 2020 (two years’ time), the 50th anniversary of his death, and I have the added bonus of knowing how long they will take me to complete. A collection of books that demands rereading, simply to draw all of the threads together. But then again I have made many a reading plan that hasn’t come to fruition…


Yukio Mishima’s “The Sea of Fertility” tetralogy, “The Temple of Dawn”


Further reflections on Yukio Mishima’s final books, “The Sea of Fertility” tetralogy. The four books that make up the tetralogy are:

Spring Snow translated by Michael Gallagher

Runaway Horses translated by Michael Gallagher

The Temple of Dawn translated by E. Dale Saunders and Cecilia Seqawa Seigle

The Decay of the Angel translated by Edward G. Seidensticker

I have now completed reading the first three, with the shortest of the four books remaining. The allegory, metaphor and symbolism continues in The Temple of Dawn, sky, clouds, dawn and the evening sky the prominent subjects.

Of the three volumes read to date, I found this one a lot harder to engage with, it could be the change in translators, although the subject matter was less focused on character development and action, with significant portions dedicated to musing on Buddhist and Hindu theory.

The work opens with our protagonist, Honda again as the main thread throughout the tetralogy, travelling to Thailand and India. A slight hint of travelogue style allows Mishima to present a detached view of Nationalism;

Traveling through a country like Thailand, Honda realized more clearly than ever the simplicity and purity of things Japanese, like transparent stream water through which one could glimpse pebbles below, or the probity of Shinto rites. Honda’s life was not imbued with such spirit. Like the majority of Japanese he ignored it, behaving as though it did not exist and surviving by escaping from it. All his life he had dodged things fundamental and artless: white silk, clear cold water, the zigzag white paper of the exorciser’s staff fluttering in the breeze, the sacred precinct marked by a torii, the gods’ dwelling in the sea, the mountains, the vast ocean, the Japanese sword with its glistening blade so pure and sharp. Not only Honda, but the vast majority of Westernized Japanese, could no longer stand such intensely native elements. (P26)

Early in the novel we are introduced to the Temple of Dawn, Wat Arun in Thailand;

The pagoda had long served as a morning bell tolled by its rich hues, resonant colors responding to the dawn. They were created so as to evoke beauty, a power, an explosiveness like the dawn itself.
In the eerie, yellowish brown morning light reflecting ruddily in the Menam River, the pagoda cast its shining reflection, presaging the coming of still another sweltering day. (pp14-15)

However later the temple becomes Mount Fuji, this is post WWII Japan now and Honda is shifting from ignoring “the mountains”, he can “stand such intensely native elements”;

The next morning Honda awoke alone in the villa, and for protection against the cold, donned a woollen scarf, a cardigan, and a thick winter coat. He crossed the lawn and walked to the arbor at the west end of the garden. More than anything else he had been anticipating watching Fuji at dawn.
The mountain was tinted crimson in the sunrise. Its tip glowed the color of a brilliant rose stone, and to his eyes it was a dreamlike illusion, a classical cathedral roof, a Japanese Temple of Dawn. (P157)

The references to reaching for the divine, whether in Thailand, Japan or India (Honda travels to India too), add to the spiritual angle of this work, and whilst the thread of Honda’s interactions with reincarnated characters continues here it is a less prominent element to the novel. The references to architecture showing an ageing Honda is adding structure and order to his life. Although dawn is representing newness, freshness, the potential for a brighter future, there is also the foreboding of twilight;

There is a time of day immediately before dusk when the outline of every object becomes sharply delineated. It was just that moment. The lacerated edges of wooden beams in the wreckage, the freshness of the rents in the shredded trees, and the curled zinc sheets with their puddles of rain water – everything appeared almost unpleasantly vivid. In the extreme west only a horizontal line of scarlet was to be seen in the sky between two or three towering black burned-out buildings. Flecks of scarlet were also visible through the windows of the ruined structures. It was as if someone had turned on a red light in a deserted and uninhabited house. (p140)

We had already been forewarned;

“Art is a colossal evening glow,” he repeated. “It’s the burnt offering of all the best things of an era. Even the clearest logic that has long thrived in daylight is completely destroyed by the meaningless lavish explosion of color in the evening sky; even history, apparently destined to endure forever, is abruptly made aware of its own end. Beauty stands before everyone; it renders human endeavor completely futile. Before the brilliance of evening, before the surging evening clouds, all rot about some ‘better future’ immediately fades away. The present moment is all; the air is filled with a poison of color. What’s beginning? Nothing. Everything is ending. (p12)

It is this luminescence just prior to the “ending” that fascinates Mishima;

The evening sky was already casting its gentle rose color over the river; passing sails dropped dusky shadows on the water.
It was a time of opulent, mysterious luminescence before the dusk of evening. A time controlled by light, when the contours of all things were perfect, every dove painted in detail, when everything was dyed a faded yellow-rose, when a languid harmony reigned with the exquisiteness of an etching between the reflection on the river and the glow in the sky. (p61)

In my previous posts I also referred to the moon references, well the tetralogy IS called the Sea of Fertility and in the Vintage edition notes on the author, Mishima is reported to have said, “The title, The Sea of Fertility…is intended to suggest the arid sea of the moon that belies its name. Or I might say that it superimposes the image of cosmic nihilism on that of the fertile sea.”

I’ll finish this post with two pertinent quotes about the sea of fertility, keeping in mind Mishima’s failed coup d’état and subsequent ritual suicide immediately after finishing the tetralogy;

But the feeling of disillusion and despair – as if one had seen the other side of the moon – which overtakes the successful revolutionary makes death merely an escape from a wilderness worse than death itself. (p87)

He was certain that unless the moon were permitted to stay clear, the emptiness and disgust that flooded his heart would expand and expand, and the dark turmoil would be transformed into sexual desire. It astonished him to discover that it was just such a landscape that awaited him at the end of his life’s journey. (p183)

I will continue to slow methodical march of our protagonist Honda (and Mishima) to his death, as I’m sure that is what awaits me in the final novel.

Yukio Mishima’s “The Sea of Fertility” tetralogy, allegory and metaphor


Today I continue my reflections on Yukio Mishima’s final books, “The Sea of Fertility” tetralogy. The four books that make up the tetralogy are:

“Spring Snow” translated by Michael Gallagher
“Runaway Horses” translated by Michael Gallagher
“The Temple of Dawn” translated by E. Dale Saunders and Cecilia Seqawa Seigle
“The Decay of the Angel” translated by Edward G. Seidensticker

I am half way through book two “Runaway Horses” and will avoid discussing the rampant Nationalism and the right-wing bent until a later post – I may even wait until I’m done with all four titles.

Today I’m going to look at metaphor and allegory, Mishima making it easy for the reader to identify a number of metaphors;

Yet if Iinuma had been more honest with himself, he would undoubtedly have noticed that he used an excessive number of metaphors having to do with emotion. He would undoubtedly have recognized himself as one who had indeed once lived out the original poem but who now made do with mere echoes of it, constantly applying the images of the moon, snow, and blossoms of long ago to scenes that were altering with every passing year. What he did not realize, in short, was that his eloquence had grown hollow. (‘Runaway Horses’ p178)

I have already written about the moon in my first post of the collection, little did I know Mishima was going to point out that the moon is a metaphor!!! Snow, obviously featuring in the title of the first volume and throughout. The protagonist Kiyoaki’s and his love Satoko consummating their love whilst taking place in a rickshaw ride:

As he looked up, the sky above seemed to be a fury of boiling white. The snow was now lashing down right on their faces. If they opened their mouths, it lay on their tongues. To be buried in such a drift…it seemed like heaven.
“Now there’s snow in here,” she said dreamily. Apparently, she meant that it had melted in a trickle from her neck to her breast. There was nothing anarchic in the falling snow, however: it fell with the steady solemnity of an ordered ritual. He felt his cheeks grow cold, and gradually became aware that his heart was fading within him. (‘Spring Snow’ p90)

The sun is also a feature, of course the rising sun features on Japan’s National flag, and the Emperor of Japan is said to be a direct descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu. “Runaway Horses” set primarily in unrelenting heat;

Only on this drill ground was the hand of the sun working with a mathematical clarity and precision. Only here! The will of the Emperor penetrated the sweat, the blood, the very flesh of these young men, piercing their bodies like X-rays. From high above the entranceway of regimental headquarters, the golden chrysanthemum of the imperial crest, brilliant in the sunshine, looked down upon this beautiful, sweaty, intricate choreography of death.
And elsewhere? Elsewhere throughout Japan the rays of the sun were blocked.
(‘Runaway Horses’ Page 150)

Later during a discussion about “capitalism devoid of national allegiance” there is a further sun/Emperor reference;

The sorrowful sun, the sun glittering with a chill whiteness, could give no touch of warmth, yet rose up sadly every morning to begin its course. This was indeed the figure of His Majesty. Who would not long to look up again to behold the joyful countenance of the sun? (‘Runaway Horses’ p229)

Flowers also feature heavily, as seen in the excerpt above, “the golden chrysanthemum of the imperial crest” the flag of the Japanese Emperor;


Image from By Zscout370 – 皇室儀制令 (in Japanese). Archived from the original on 1 May 2009., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1093355


Takashi Fujitani’s book “Splendid Monarchy: Power and Pageantry in Modern Japan” explains;

While the chrysanthemum had had close associations with the imperial household since the reign of Gotoba (1183-98), the sixteen-petalled Imperial Chrysanthemum Crest was first recognized as the exclusive emblem of the imperial household in April 1868. The Imperial Flag bearing the chrysanthemum emblem was an early Meiji invention as well. The idea of an imperial flag dates from 1870, and in 1871 the prototype for all future imperial flags was unveiled: a gold chrysanthemum on a red background. Since in this early period court ritualists themselves were experimenting with imperial emblems, it seems safe to assume that for most people, especially those living in the provinces, the chrysanthemum need not have signified the imperial household.

In fact, during Emperor Meiji’s progresses there was sometimes a great deal of confusion in the popular mind about which floral emblem to associate with the emperor. Kishida Ginko, a newspaper reporter for the Tōkyō nichinichi shinbun who was then accompanying the 1878 Hokuriku -Tōkaidō Tour, noted that red cherry blossoms had been placed on lanterns hanging from the eaves of houses along the processional route in Niigata Prefecture. When he asked a local if this emblem stood for the province of Echigo, the customary name for the Niigata area, the reply was that the red cherry blossom was the crest of the emperor (tenchōsama no mon dasuke).

Emperor Meiji also took with him two of the imperial regalia, the Sacred Sword and Curved Jewel, and he passed through villages and towns that had been ornamented with Rising Sun lanterns (hinomaru chōchin) and national flags. But again, the great masses of people were not familiar with any of these symbols. How could they have known that the heavenly gods had conferred the imperial regalia upon Ninigo-no-mikoto, the grandson of the Sun Goddess, with the injunction to rule over the land? The authorisies, it must be remembered, had difficulty enough explaining that the emperor was descended from the Sun Goddess.

The Rising Suns gracing Japan’s national flag and the hinomaru lanterns had an even longer history of association with the imperial household than the chrysanthemums did; but like the floral emblem, the rising sun had no exclusively national or imperial meaning for most commoners until the modern era. (Pages 48-49)

In “Spring Snow”, Kiyoaki’s and Satoko meet clandestinely again, this time during the festival of the cherry blossom. There are innumerable flower references throughout the works, I’m sure many symbolic, if I come across any obvious metaphors or allegories I’ll put up another post.

I had prepared a post about the flag references, the purity of volume one “Spring Snow” and the whiteness of the snow possibly being the background to the Japanese flag, volume two “Runaway Horses” with the unrelenting heat and the red sun possibly being the rising sun on the flag. I decided against a lengthy post because I am possibly reading too much into the symbolism, where would volumes three and four go? We have water (ice, snow) and fire (heat, sun) in books one and two, will three and four be earth and wind? I better get back to reading to find out…

Yukio Mishima’s “The Sea of Fertility” tetralogy, more thoughts


Today, more thoughts about the first book in Yukio Mishima’s “The Sea of Fertility” tetralogy, “Spring Snow”.

It is difficult to read books by writers such as Édouard Levé, Qiu Miaojin, Sadegh Hedayat, Osamu Dazai or Stig Sæterbakken, all writers who committed suicide, where the characters in their works also contemplate the final act. You bring a pre-conceived thematic notion to their works. Yukio Mishima is no different, his failed coup d’état and ritual suicide – seppuku – always lingering, especially with his final books, the tetralogy being completed in the days prior to his failed attempt to restore the power of the Japanese Emperor.

“Spring Snow”, a slow, contemplative, meditative novel where the narrative arc is simple, also contains a raft of detail about Japanese history, Western influence on their culture and debates about various religious or traditional ceremonies.

It is generally through dialogue that the various opinions and arguments take place.

Early in the novel, Chapter 13, two of the main characters, Kiyoaki and Honda, discuss time, the style of an era (“I’d be more inclined to say that the style of the Meiji era is still dying.”), history and their individual roles in such;

“Europeans believe that a man like Napoleon can impose his will on history. We Japanese think the same of the men like your grandfather and his contemporaries who brought about the Meiji Restoration. But is that really true? Does history ever obey the will of men? Looking at you always makes me ponder that question. You’re not a great man and you’re not a genius either. But, nonetheless, you have one characteristic that sets you quite apart: you have no trace whatever of willpower. And so I am always fascinated to think of you in relation to history.”
“Are you being sarcastic?”
“No, not a bit. I’m thinking in terms of unconscious participation in history. For example, let’s say that I have willpower –”
“You certainly have.”
“Say that I want to alter the course of history. I devote all my energies and resources to this end. I use every ounce of strength I possess to bend history to my will. Say I possess the prestige and authority so necessary to bring this about. None of this would ensure that history proceeded according to my wishes. Then, on the other hand, perhaps a hundred or two hundred, even three hundred years later, history might veer abruptly to take a course that was constant with my vision and ideals – and this without my having had anything whatever to do with it. Perhaps society would assume a form that was the exact replica of my dreams of a hundred or two hundred years before; history, enjoying the new glory that had been my vision, would smile at me with cool condescension and mock my ambition. And people would say : ‘Well, that’s history.’”

The whole chapter is a debate between the two characters about an era that has passed, about their potential roles in history and ability to influence change. The sceptre of the author’s demands for the restoration of the Emperor in 1970 leaving a shadow over the whole debate.

Another ongoing theme is the influence of the English on Japanese culture, there are many minor references to the Westernisation of ceremonies, or the furnishings, or even somebody preferring billiards to mahjong, there are references to “carefully nurtured “English” absentmindedness” or the keeping of rodents as pets. The triviality of the English influence can be seen in the following conversation that takes place during the blossom festival, between Baron Shinkawa and Count Ayakura, the Baron modelling himself on English culture;

“They tell me, Baron, that you spent a good deal of time in London.”
“Yes, and in London at tea time the hostess makes a great point of asking everyone: ‘Milk or tea first?’ Though it all comes to the same in the end, tea and milk mixed together in the cup, the English place enormous importance on one’s preference as to which should be poured first. With them it seems to be an affair of greater gravity than the latest government crisis.”

In later chapters two Siamese (Thai) Princes spend some time at a summer house with Kiyoaki and Honda and discuss the transmigration of souls, this opens up to Buddhist tales from the Jataka Sutra and then further debate and opinions by Honda on reincarnation;

“There is an abundance of death in our lives. We never lack reminders – funerals, cemeteries, withered commemorative bouquets, memories of the dead, deaths of friends, and then the anticipation of our own death. Who knows? Perhaps in their own way the dead make a great deal of life. Perhaps they’re always looking in our direction from their own land – at our towns, our schools, the smokestacks of our factories, at each of us who has passed one by one back from death into the land of the living.”
“What I want to say is that perhaps reincarnation is nothing more than a concept that reverses the way that we, the living, ordinarily view death, a concept that expresses life as seen from the viewpoint of the dead. Do you see?”

This is a complex work, whole chapters spent on the structure and beauty of blades of grass, large sections dedicated to the motion of waves, the natural world at times being more of an influence than the main human characters.

I can understand why a number of readers find his works “difficult” as the self-reflection, the contemplation is a major feature of the characters. It is a work that I am thoroughly enjoying, even if I cannot help having a pre-conceived set of thoughts about the author’s motivations.

Yukio Mishima’s “The Sea of Fertility” tetralogy, initial thoughts

SPringSnowWith a very specific purpose in mind, but more on that another time, I have commenced reading Yukio Mishima’s final four books, a tetralogy, “The Sea of Fertility”, and today would like to present some initial highlights.

Avid readers of world literature would know about Yukio Mishima’s ritual suicide – seppuku, an event that seems to overshadow his significant contribution to Japanese literature. He was considered for the Nobel Prize in 1968, only to see his fellow countryman Yasunari Kawabata take home the gong. It was on 25 November 1970, just  after completing his tetralogy, “Hōjō no Umi” translated as “The Sea of Fertility”, that Yukio Mishima, along with four others, attempted a coup d’état, demanding a restoration of the power of the emperor. The failed attempt ending with the writer’s suicide.

His tetralogy commences with “Haru no Yuki” translated by Michael Gallagher as “Spring Snow”.

Yukio Mishima’s novel is set in 1912, soon after the Russo-Japanese War, and with the westernisation of Japan taking place, the book deals with this pervading sense of change. An important theme when reflecting upon Yukio Mishima’s attempted coup d’état, however I will save these reflections for a later post.

Very much like his earlier novel, “The Temple of The Golden Pavilion” we have a novel steeped in Buddhist reflections, central characters who are contemplative, and even though this work is set before the Second World War it also deals with Nationalist themes. Here we have Kiyoaki Matsugae, a sensitive melancholy boy of eighteen, one of the prominent characters, and another dominant theme in this book is the moon, here is a rather lengthy excerpt, with Kiyoaki front and centre;

At this point, both parents were at a loss for viable topics of conversation and began to flounder, their discomfiture evident even to Kiyoaki. Somehow, however, they finally happened upon the congenial subject of Kiyoaki’s Otachimachi, the divination ritual that had taken place three years before when he was fifteen.
This ancient ceremony fell on the seventeenth of August according to the lunar calendar. A large wooden basin filled with water was placed in the garden to catch the reflection of the moon, and appropriate offerings were made. If the sky was overcast on this August night of his fifteenth year, bad fortune was expected to dog the boy who stood before the basin, for the rest of his life.
As his parents talked, the scene came back to Kiyoaki vividly. Flanked by his parents and dressed in his
hakama, a divided skirt, and kimono blazoned with the family crest, he had stood in the middle of the dew-drenched lawn, the new basin filled with water before him, and a chorus of chirping insects ringing in his ears.
The trees that encircled the now-darkened garden, the tiled roofs of the mansion itself beyond, even the maple hill – the reflection of all this, and more, had been fixed in jagged outline, compressed into the circle of water that was defined by the rim of the basin. That rim of blond Cyprus wood had become a frontier where this world ended and another began. Since this ceremony during his fifteenth year was to determine his lifetime fortune, Kiyoaki felt as though his very soul, naked, had been set there on the wet grass. The wooden sides of the basin expressed his outer self; the disk of water, which they in turn defined, expressed his inner.
Everyone was silent, so the sounds of insects throughout the garden filled his ears as never before. He gazed earnestly into the basin. The water within was dark at first, shadowed by clouds as thick as clustered seaweed. A moment later the seaweed seemed to wave and he thought he had seen a faint glow suffuse the water, but then it faded. He could not remember how long he had waited after that. Then all of a sudden the black water in the basin, which had seemed impenetrably obscure, cleared, and there directly in its center shone a tiny image of the full moon.
Everyone broke into exclamations of pleasure, and his mother, rigid all this time, was greatly relieved and began to wave her fan to drive away the mosquitos swarming around her skirt.
“Oh, I’m so glad! Now the boy will have a fortunate life, won’t he?” she said.
Then Kiyoaki was congratulated by everyone present.
But he still felt a certain dread. He could not bring himself to look up into the sky at the moon itself, the origin of the image in the water. Rather he kept looking down into the basin and into the water contained by its curved sides, the reflection of his innermost self, into which the moon, like a golden shell, had sunk so deep. For at that moment he had captured the celestial. It sparkled like a golden butterfly trapped in the meshes of his soul.

After dinner that evening, where the ritual three years prior was discussed, Kioyaki’s father requests the boy to accompany him on his walk to his mistress’s house and proposes a night out for his son with geishas so he can ‘kick up his heels’, his reply is simply “No, thank you”

The moon was bright, and the wind moaned through the branches of the trees…The hooting of the owls and the wind in the trees reminded Kiyoaki, still wine-flushed, of the branches blowing in the photograph of the memorial service. As they walked through the bleak, wintry night, his father was anticipating the moist warmth and intimacy of the rosy flesh that awaited him, while his son’s thoughts turned toward death.

When he is eighteen years old Kioyaki is concerned about a letter he has sent, and needs to come up with a plan to retrieve the offending letter before the recipient gets to read it;

The night wind howled at the windows of the passageway with its line of dim lanterns stretching into the distance. Suddenly afraid that someone might see him and wonder at his running and being out of breath like this, he stopped, and as he rested his elbows on the ornamental window frame and pretended to stare out into the garden, he tried desperately to put his thoughts in order. Unlike dreams, reality was not so easy to manipulate. He had to conceive a plan. It could not be anything vague and uncertain; it had to be as firmly compact as a pill, and with as sure and immediate a result. He was oppressed by a sense of his own weakness, and after the warmth of the room he had just left, the cold corridor made him shiver.
He pressed his forehead to the wind-buffeted glass and peered out into the garden. There was no moon tonight. The island and the maple hill beyond formed one mass in the darkness. In the faint glow of the corridor lamps he could make out the surface of the pond ruffled by the wind. He suddenly imagined that the snapping turtles had reared their heads out of the water and were looking toward him. The thought made him shudder.

Kiyoaki’s fate appears inextricable linked to the phases of the moon, will this theme continue?

House of the Sleeping Beauties and other stories – Yasunari Kawabata (translated by Edward G. Seidensticker)


Late last year Vintage International re-released Yasunari Kawabata’s “House of the Sleeping Beauties”, a novella, short story (?) that had been out-of-print in English for about thirteen years. It appears as though even Nobel Prize winners have books that simply disappear.  For many years I had wanted to read this story, but could not find a decently priced second hand copy, so once I learned of the re-release a pre-order was placed, and I eagerly awaited the book’s arrival. The edition contains three “stories”, “House of the Sleeping Beauties” (1961), ”One Arm” (1964) and the earlier “Of Birds and Beasts” (1933). Having recently read Kawabata’s “The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa”  as part of my “World Ulysses” tour, it was timely to read another early work and a couple of later stories from his oeuvre.

The book opens with the title story, where our ageing narrator, Eguchi, visits a country abode to sleep next to a naked sleeping teenage girl. His visits to sleep with different drugged virginal nude girls become more frequent, and each visit makes up one chapter, five visits, six girls. This is a work of unspoken secrets, “all was silence”, “nothing suggested that the room had unusual secrets”, the only disquiet in the opening scenes being a stylized bird on the Madame’s obi knot on her kimono. A work that balances age and youth, male and female, ugliness and beauty, eroticism and innocence;

Had he not come to this house seeking the ultimate in the ugliness of old age?”

Written in light, exquisite prose, a whisper, the meditative reflections of an old man, juxtaposed against the reflective beauty of the sleeping virgins, through this light touch the imagery is delicate, yet at the same time the subject matter is oppressive, a beautifully balanced exploration of death, memory, and desire;

For the old men who were customers the woman could “trust”, sleeping with a beauty who would not awaken was a temptation, an adventure, a joy they could trust. Old Kiga had said to Eguchi that only when he was beside a girl who had been put to sleep could be himself feel alive. (p22)

The fantasy world of a red velvet alcove, with sounds of waves crashing in the background, whilst an old man views sleeping beauties and recalls erotic interactions from his past, is a meditation on both possession, and obsession as well as a reflective musing on the beauty of innocence and youth.

Might it be called the surprise of suddenly being pulled away from the everyday world? (p35)

This is a haunting, sad, obsessive tale, balancing the macabre with the surreal, the potential repulsiveness with the prospective magnificence. The pussyfooting of “The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa”, where the teenage prostitutes sit on the periphery is now suddenly an ageing writer’s obsession, the dark, secret preoccupations now the main theme for Kawabata’s work.

It was a house frequented by old men who could no longer use women as women; but Eguchi, on this third visit, knew that to sleep with such a girl was a fleeting consolation, the pursuit of a vanished happiness in being alive. And were there among them old men who secretly asked to sleep forever beside a girl who had been put to sleep? There seemed to be a sadness in the young girl’s body that called up in an old man a longing for death. But perhaps Eguchi was, among the old men who came to the house, one of the more easily moved; and perhaps most of them but wanted to drink in the youth of girls put to sleep, to enjoy girls who would not awaken. (pp58-59)

This edition contains an introduction by Yukio Mishima, and it should come with a spoiler warning, unless you want the last of the five chapters in the story revealed I suggest you skip reading the three page introduction and head straight into the text itself.

There could be for an old man worn to the point of death no time of greater oblivion that when he lay enveloped in the skin of a young girl. (p47)

The next story in the collection is “One Arm”;

“I can let you have one of my arms for the night,” said the girl. She took off her right arm at the shoulder and, with her left hand, laid it on my knee. (p103)

This is a bizarre story where a young woman removes her arm and gives it to our narrator, an older man, for the night, he then recounts his journey home, his sleeping with the arm and his fixations. Another story of possession, obsession, beauty and youth, male and female. Here we have a blurring of fantasy and reality, fetishism and control. Similar in themes to “House of the Sleeping Beauties” using meditative, sparse and reflective prose, we also have the theme of “sleep” dominating the tale, a place where the fantasy can become reality, peace…an otherworldly state…

“Self? What is that? Where is it?”
“Far away,” said the arm, as if singing in consolation. “People walk around looking for selves, far away.”
“And do they come upon them?”
“Far away,” said the arm once more (p111)

The final story in the collection is “Of Birds and Beasts”, where our narrator is a hermit animal collector;

But for him life was filled with a young freshness for several days after a new bird came. He felt in it the blessings of the universe. Perhaps it was a failing on his part, but he was unable to feel anything of the sort in a human being. And it was easier to see the wonders of creation in a moving bird than in motionless shells and flowers. The little creatures, even when caged, gave forth the joy of life. (p131)

Here it is a human’s withdrawal from social relations and using pets as his interaction with the world. There are some striking examples of Kawabata’s style in this short story, where two extremes, opposites, can take shape within a single sentence;

Love of birds and animals comes to be a quest for superior ones, and so cruelty takes root.

Any kind of inhumanity, given practice, becomes human.

In these two examples, love becomes cruelty and inhumanity, human, it is through these exploration of extremes that I enjoy Kawabata’s work. In these three stories, that cover thirty years of his work, we can see numerous dichotomies in play.

Another common element used in each story is observations made whilst removed, in “House of the Sleeping Beauties” it is the voyeurism of the narrator observing the sleeping girls, their helplessness and his control, he could kill them if he chose to do so, in “One Arm” it is the meticulous detail of the inherited arm, in “Of Birds and Beasts” it is the narrator’s ability to observe pets being discarded as trash. Our narrators somehow on the outside of the action, drawing the reader into the observational, you are the voyeur.

Skilful, moving, meditative and thought provoking these are three stories that any fan of Japanese literature, or short stories should seek out.


The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa by Yasunari Kawabata (translated by Alisa Freedman)


My post on “A World of Ulysses” was quite popular, generating a few social media comments, and garnering a higher than usual number of views. Today I look at the “Japanese Ulysses”, as identified by Joshua Cohen, Yasunari Kawabata’s “The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa” (translated by Alisa Freedman), Cohen advising us:

This lurid novel, teeming with teen prostitutes and slumming littérateurs, earned its author the prize that eluded Joyce, the Nobel. Originally published in a daily newspaper—surely one of the strangest serializations ever—Kawabata’s monster is a manic crawl through the dingy Asakusa: Tokyo’s red-light district.

I can assure you this novel does share something with Joyce’s work, it is a difficult read.

The “Foreword” by Donald Richie advises that Kawabata was part of a group labelled the “New Perception School”. His “ambition was to view every incident of the human condition through new eyes….one of the tenets of the new aesthetic movement, modernism.”

The first thirty-seven chapters of the novel originally appeared as a serialization in the Tokyo Asahi newspaper between 20 December 1929 and 16 February 1930, at the bottom of the first page. From September 1930 chapters 38 through 51 appeared under the title “The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa” in Reconstruction (Kaizō, volume 12, number 9), with Chapters 52 through 61 appearing as “The Red Sash Society” in New Currents (Shinchō, volume 27, number 9). This format leads to a repetition, especially in the first 37 chapters, where the “action” is repeated to emphasise the crucial narrative beacons to new readers. In later chapters the narrative flow smooths out and therefore becomes a little more readable.

In a nutshell the story is about the region of Tokyo where the bawdy revues sit alongside the homeless, the young girls of Asakusa who have been tricked into prostitution, and the shady dealings of the inhabitants of this region.

The Scarlet Gang uses votive stickers, but they do it in a way all their own. It’s not that they are curious enough to want to learn that the practice of using votive stickers was begun by Emperor Kazan, who stuck them on all the places of worship he visited, and that stickers were even designed by ukiyoe artists like Utagawa Toyokuni. Also, they don’t believe in the efficacy enough to go around slapping them on shrines and temples just for that reason. I’ll give you an example. One day that little tyke Boat Tokikō (his father is a boatman on the Ōkawa, so he is called Boat Tokikō) said to me: You know the Five Story Pagoda?
– The one at the Sensō Temple?
– Yep. On the third story counting from the top or the bottom on the corner near the Nio Gate, there’s this ridge-end tile sticking out. It’s got a monkey’s face on it, and its eyeballs are all gold. Well I want to stick my sticker flat on the monkey’s face.
So just like that, under the cover of night, they stick their Scarlet Troupe votive stickers at truly inappropriate locations. For example, the middle of the three big paper lanterns at the Nio Gate entrance to the Sensō Temple, or on the black-lacquered bottom of that lantern from Irifune-chō, or the horns of the cow statue in the grounds of the Ushijima Shrine over in Mukōjima. (p6)

As you can see, from this short quote, the dialogue is presented as though you are listening in on a conversation, the different speakers delineated by em dashes, in this example it is a reportage of a conversation, however in other sections you are only glimpsing part of the conversation. To understand who is speaking is very difficult, and at time to know what they are speaking about is even more cryptic.

Unlike other works by Kawabata, this appears as an experimentation, the future winner of the Nobel Prize, honing his craft with different styles, methods of creating, reportage. However the imagery remains vivid, the themes, where sexual undertones float aplenty, are forming in the young writer’s mind.

A young woman in a red dress is pounding the piano in the entryway. The bright red stands out against the black of the piano, and the white of her legs, bare from knees down to feet, is young, fresh. The entryway isn’t much wider than a wooden sandal is long, and from where I stand, just outside, it seems as though I can reach in and give that black ribbon around her waist a tug. This ribbon is the only decoration, but because the dress is sleeveless with a low neckline, it’s something like an evening gown. No, even here at home she’s wearing something for the stage – a dance costume? Traces of white powder cling to the nape of her neck, and above it her hair is cropped close as a boy’s. (p10)

We follow this girl, Yumiko, she does fade from view only to return later, and the sexual references continue, for example where she is on a boat with a “customer” Kawabata advises us “And Yumiko polishes the glass globe, her head lowered, cheeks flushed, lost in thought” (p70).

All the seediness of Asakusa bubbles in the background, as our novelist wanders the streets and parks at night, relaying to us his observations;

Right under your nose, you can find lady bums dressed as men. You just laugh them off. But a man dressed as a woman, face thick with white powder, elaborate Japanese-style wig, all decked out in red, slipping off with another man into the dark alleys behind the temple – this sends chills up your spine like you’ve just seen a peculiar lizard or something. (p51)

The horror of child prostitution is also peppered throughout, young girls from the country taking work, during the Depression, and being tricked into prostitution;

It’s not so surprising that the little girl who rode the holy horse in the May Sanja Shrine festival already now in June has to sell her body to support her family. (p128)

Although a cast of 100’s move in and out of view, it is the seediness, the lure of the erotic, and the area of Asakawa that is the focus here:

Asakusa is Tokyo’s heart…
Asakusa is a human market…
The words of that popular writer Soeda Azenb
ō: Asakusa is Asakusa for everyone. In Asakusa, everything is flung out in the raw. Desires dance naked. All races, all classes, all jumbled together forming a bottomless, endless current, flowing day and night, no beginning, no end. Asakusa is alive…The masses converge on it, constantly. Their Asakusa is a foundry in which all the old models are regularly melted down to be cast into new ones. (p30)

A work that is a dichotomy of styles, the writing is influenced by the modernism of the West, the revues are snippets of the West, but there is a lament for the loss of Japanese culture;

For example, dear reader, have you listened to manzai lately? Manzai used to be funny. But in 1929, because the manzai people have been pushed by the “modern”, by that wild reckless nonsense straight from America, they have become pathetic clowns in both senses of the word. (p93)

There are historical laments too, a section set just after the massive earthquake of 1923 where Asakusa was flattened. And as you can see in the above quote, the direct address to you, “the reader”, occur frequently, as does the theme of Kawabata writing this book:

I tossed around the idea of writing a long, strange novel. And, dear reader, in these pages, after ten years, I have finally begun to do that. (p133)

This edition contains a very useful Foreword and Afterword by Don Ritchie as well as a Translator’s Preface, where the difficulty of translating the slang and references to Japanese culture and literature are explained, as well as an extensive Glossary and Selected Bibliography, greatly assisting academics, and the University of California Press should be congratulated for bringing this little known work into print.

A difficult read given the dialogue style, the lack of character development, and the subject matter, this is a curio in Kawabata’s work, one where he is experimenting with styles and the modernist, as well as serialized approach. It is a worthwhile addition to the world listing of Ulysses, and it is an interesting addition for readers who have enjoyed his more famous works such as “Snow Country”, “The Sound of the Mountain” and “The House of the Sleeping Beauties”, however I would not recommend starting your 1968 Nobel Prize winning journey with this book.

Death By Water – Kenzaburō Ōe (translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm) – Man Booker International Prize 2016

There have been a couple of posts between my review of Maylis de Kerangal’s “Mend The Living” (translated by Jessica Moore) and this look at Kenzaburō Ōe’s “Death by Water”, however I did read these books back-to-back. Moving from the stilted, awkward style of the French novel to the smooth, eloquence associated with J-Lit. I can assure you the stark contrast was startling.

The title “Death by Water” is taken from a phrase for drowning used by T.S. Eliot in the poem “The Waste Land”
Our novel focuses on the ageing famous writer, Kogito Choko (Kenzaburō Ōe), and opens with his return to the family home, ten years after his mother’s death, at his sister’s request. This reconciliation of family now gives Choko the, long deferred, opportunity to finish his novel that is about his father’s drowning death. As we explore more of this time it is also a reflection by Choko on his family relationships, his childhood memories and his imaginary friend Kogii. When our narrator returns home he meets up with a theatre troupe, the Caveman Group, who is planning to adapt all of his writings for the stage, a devise for the author to discuss his previous works with the theatre group whilst researching his “drowning novel”. The reflection on other works by Ōe are interspersed with interviews with Choko and (of course) the author’s internal musings.
One of the key prompts for Choko’s upcoming novel, apparently his last, is a family heirloom, a “red trunk”, hopefully it contains his family’s history, letters, feedback on his first draft of the ‘drowning man’ novel that he sent to his estranged (now dead) mother and further riches.
When Kogito Choko opens the red trunk his first discovery is three volumes of the English book “The Golden Bough”…later we learn “the myth of the Forest King of Nemi is one of the underlying themes of the whole ‘Golden Bough’, from beginning to end. The archetypal myth about the new king who kills his aged predecessor, thus engendering a renascence of fertility in the world.” Is this a reference to post-war Japan and the rule of Emperor Hirohito? Is this a reference to the passing on of the patriarchal role from Choko senior to Choko junior? Are these anthropological and folkloric principles a metaphor for modern Japanese politics? You’ll have to read this book yourself to find out….
However I jump ahead of myself, very early on in the novel do we learn of our narrator’s (and writer’s) fate, when he states: “what if the novelist himself ended up being sucked into the whirlpool in a single gulp when he was finished telling his story?”
As the inner sleeve explains this is “an interweaving of myth, history and autobiography…a shimmering masterpiece. Reportedly the last novel that Kenzaburō Ōe will ever write, this is an exhilarating ending for the great literary character of Kogito Choko and a deeply personal denouement for one of the world’s most important and influential living authors.”
There are many many layers to this work however for this exercise of reviewing the work I will primarily focus on the character of Kogito Choko as a mirror for Kenzaburō Ōe. For example when reflecting upon a theatrical representation of his work “The Day Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away” (written in 1972, published in English in the collection “Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness”) which features Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata ‘Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen, BWV 56’, Choko’s sister says
“It’s just that you’re about to embark on what (considering your age) may well turn out to be your final project. I realize your main focus will be on exploring the contents of the red leather trunk, with the help of the Caveman Group, but I can’t help wondering what might happen if some echoes of the ultranationalist German song were to show up in the book you ultimately write.”
This is a subtle, understated novel, blending repetitive tales of Choko’s memories or current day actions with folklore, local spirits, samurai, female warriors and references to Kenzaburō Ōe’s other writings or even Natsume Soseki’s “Kokoro”. A ‘letter” in Chapter six, part 5, is very pertinent; although talking about the novel “Kokoro” the reflection of the book we are now reading is almost mirror like, “writing a sort of regretful retrospective was apparently his only means of talking about his own conduct after decades of silence.” Kenzaburō Ōe’s “The Changeling” appearing in 2000 (nine years before “Suishi”, this work, appeared in Japan).

The literary references are so rich I can’t help but quote these wonderful passages;
“In your work to date, you’ve portrayed Father as a grotesquely exaggerated character, almost a cartoon – sometimes ludicrous, sometimes tragic, sometimes a bit heroic – but really, your take on him has been all over the map. In other words, for you, there was no clarity so there can be no absolution or closure, either.”
Therefore, as you are reading this “fiction” the revelations as to an unreliable narrator, the knowledge that you will have no closure is slowly appearing, as a reader you are complicit in the novelist’s journey.
“In my novels, I usually portray characters who exist in very private worlds, but even so, my ultimate goal is to somehow express the spirit of the era I’m writing about. I’m not claiming there’s any special merit in my approach – and, as you’ve so kindly pointed out, my readership has nearly dried up as a result. This may seem like a stretch, but if I should die I can’t help thinking that it would almost be as if I were committing junshi myself: following my own era (and the principles I’ve fought for) into death. I’m speaking metaphorically of course.”
Like a number of Japanese novels I have read, the melancholic, meditative, almost Buddhist contemplation, is prominent in both the style and the content. “Although at the same time they saw something interesting in the slightly retro, nostalgic feeling that infuses so much of his work – what you might call a divergence from the now.”
One of the other prominent characters is Uniako, a thirty-something, determined actress, part of the Caveman Group, she has her own distinctive style which includes a ‘dog-tossing’ model, in the Prologue we are introduced to Rabelais and his work Pantagruel, a tale about rabid dogs. Yes, don’t let any reference, however small, slip through, it may pop up later, however you never know it could be a “McGuffin” (see Enrique Vila-Matas’ “The Illogic of Kassel” if you’d like more on McGuffins).
Is this work a Japanese Karl-Ove Knausgaard? Is Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” a Norwegian Kenzaburō Ōe? Am I now just being ridiculous? Maybe I should leave the final word to the author!
“For Mr. Choko, this, probably is a “serious novel,” both in terms of structure and literary style. However, the thing is, over the past ten or fifteen years all of Mr. Choko’s long works of fiction have more or less been cut from the same cloth, most notably in terms of the protagonist (who is often the first-person narrator as well). Not to put too fine a point on it, but the author’s alter ego is nearly always the main character in his books. At some point, doesn’t it become overkill? I mean, can these serial slices of thinly veiled memoir really be considered genuine novels? Generally speaking, books like this will never win over the people who want to read a novel that’s actually novelistic: that is, an imaginative work of fiction. So at the risk of seeming rude, I really have to ask: Why do you choose to write about such a solipsistic and narrowly circumscribed world?”
So “generally speaking” this style of novel hasn’t won over the judges of the Man Booker International Prize – it not making the shortlist was one of the personal shocks to myself. I may be more inclined to enjoy Japanese novels than the general public, I may also be more inclined towards the male centred, solipsistic, paternalistic works, the first-person ramblings. With that in mind, take my recommendation with a grain of salt, but this is one of the better works on the longlist of thirteen, a subtle work, that creeps into your consciousness, a meditative repetitive piece that works simply as a tale of writer’s block, but also as an allegory for post-war Japan, also as a mystery of a drowning death, also as a cryptic tale of youthful folklore spirits speaking through mature adults, a novel that is both shallow and deep that the same time, a bit like a deep forest (you’ll have to read it to know what that means).

Buy This Book from Book Depository, Free Delivery World Wide