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…