Ordinary Human Language

by Brian Crane

After the Banquet

-Book Cover

The first books I read by Yukio Mishima—Confessions of a Mask and The Temple of the Golden Pavilion—were dense and alienating. They grappled with ideas and were beautifully written, but they were run through by currents of misanthropy as well, which made them difficult to stomach. Something in them attracted me though, and so, when I stumbled upon a cache of his books this summer in a used bookstore in Cleveland, I felt like I’d found a gold mine and grabbed them.

After the Banquet is the first of these I’ve read, and it’s nothing like the other two books, not least because it’s protagonist is a successful woman in her late sixties rather than a young man. This woman is an incredible character, smart, clever, and energetic, and it’s hard not to admire and fall in love with her.

The novel’s story is organized by her late-in-life romance and marriage to a retired government minister in his early seventies, but its content is about this elderly man’s half-hearted bid to be elected mayor of Tokyo. He’s no good at electoral politics and has no clear sense of why he should be mayor, but his wife has drive, a fierce intelligence and a natural talent for campaigning. Also she’s rich (with money she earned from a business she created).

As the novel follows her efforts to elect her husband (he’s a socialist in a city controlled by a conservative political machine), Mishima explores the relationship between politics and land, culture and and landscape, and the signs used to signal and shape the nationalism that remains in post-war Japan. (When I began reading Orhan Pamuk’s Snow recently, I thought of this book.)

The novel draws on melodramatic form and tells the story of a woman who suffers at the hands of powerful men. So perhaps inevitably, its political narrative offers a scene for examining the political and economic position of women. And here the novel is moving and sympathetic in the way the novels I read earlier weren’t. Mishma had less compassion in those works for characters that seemed to stand in partially for himself.

Mishima really is worth reading.

Posted November 29, 2014