Thursday, January 31, 2019

the last book I read

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea by Yukio Mishima.

Noboru is a pretty normal thirteen-year-old boy. Well, it's a difficult age, isn't it? Presenting an appearance of conscientiousness and helpfulness to his widowed Mum, Fusako, while at the same time furtively spying on her undressing in her bedroom via a peephole in the wall between their rooms. Presenting an appearance of general respectability (at school, for instance) while at the same time hanging around in a gang of boys of the same age (led by a charismatic figure only referred to here as The Chief) who reject all the trappings of "civilised" society for some ill-defined philosophy involving rugged self-reliance and more nebulous concepts like "honour" and "glory". A bit of harmless teenage fun, boys being boys and testing boundaries, you might say, except for the occasional more disturbing activities like mutilating stray cats that they get into at the Chief's instigation.

One day Fusako and Noboru take a jaunt down to the docks (they live in Yokohama, so there's a lot of docks) and meet up with Ryuji Tsukazaki, second mate on a commercial steamer, who Fusako initiates a relationship with. When she brings him back to the house for the night Noboru spies on them through the peephole, and, upon witnessing the enthusiastic way Ryuji makes Fusako extend his gangplank and pipe him aboard, before vigorously sluicing down her lower decks, decides that Ryuji is his new hero and embodies all the masculine traits he finds most pure and admirable.

As sailors do, Ryuji has to head back off to sea for a number of months, but keeps in touch with Fusako by letter, and upon returning and being reunited with Fusako decides that his seafaring days are over and that he wants to settle down, put down some roots, marry Fusako, be as good a stepfather as he can to Noboru and find some other form of employment. That's all lovely, then, isn't it? Not to Noboru, though, who views it as an utter betrayal of all the lofty masculine ideals that Ryuji supposedly embodied. And for what? Being a father - the most contemptible role a man can fulfil, according to the gang's ethos.

So clearly this will not do. Noboru consults the gang, and The Chief hatches a plan. Here is a perfect opportunity, he says, for the gang to cover themselves in manly glory, while at the same time redeeming Ryuji from the sad descent into middle-aged respectability, corpulence and impotence that will surely follow on the heels of his meek surrender to Fusako's wishes. And how will this redemption be achieved? By a glorious and honourable (and probably messy) death, of course! Erm, run that by us again, Chief? Well, you remember what happened to the cat....

So Noboru takes advantage of Ryuji's desire to be a good father and arranges a secret meeting with him, ostensibly to do a bit of bonding and allow Ryuji to meet up with his friends. Ryuji is tickled by the idea and accompanies the gang out to one of their hideouts in the woods. They're decent enough kids, after all, just a bit boisterous; and who wasn't, at that age? But they're flatteringly receptive to some hoary old nautical anecdotes, and trusting enough to include Ryuji in their tea ritual, even if the tea is a bit weird and bitter-tasting, almost as if it zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz..........

The book ends at this point and what follows is never described, but we get the idea clearly enough. The idea that Mishima would have his characters follow through on such a plan is reinforced by knowledge of Mishima's own personal circumstances, in particular the circumstances of his death, by ritual suicide after a doomed attempt at a coup in 1970. Furthermore the ideas espoused by The Chief and his gang are not that far removed from those espoused by Mishima's group: a sort of yearning for a simpler, more honourable time when men were men (and women, presumably, knew their place), the emperor was still revered as some sort of demi-god and no-one had had their heads turned by hamburgers and transistor radios and all the other polluting elements of Western so-called civilisation. So while it's quite possible to read The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea as a sort of slyly black satire on what would nowadays be called "toxic masculinity" (a good article on that subject by a former book reviewee, Tim Winton, can be found here), the suspicion remains that actually Mishima wasn't being satirical after all and this is all a true reflection of what he believed.

None of which matters, actually - novelists, particularly dead ones, don't get to police other people's interpretations of their work, and it works very well as a shocking little parable either way. It's hard to know, of course, how much of this is Mishima and how much is the excellence of John Nathan's translation, since the original was written in a language that I can neither read nor understand. The anecdote related here about the novel's title is instructive about how much can be lost in translation, though: one possible literal translation of the original Japanese title Gogo no Eiko would be Tugging In The Afternoon, which while perhaps appropriate to a novel featuring a thirteen-year-old-boy as its protagonist perhaps doesn't convey the sense of the book's themes properly.

A couple of further points: this is the second novel on this list to have been originally written in Japanese (after Norwegian Wood), and it was filmed in 1976, though the producers took the bold (or, less charitably, insane) decision to relocate this quintessentially Japanese tale to Dartmouth and cast Kris Kristofferson in the role of the sailor.

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