This is the first book I’ve read by Yukio Mishima. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but what I found was completely disorienting. Mishima is something like a Japanese Jean Genet: a gay man exploring abjection during a particularly repressive historical period. But he’s also very different culturally and in terms of class.
The novel plays out in scenes set before and during World War II, and it concludes in the months following the bombing of Hiroshima. Although the novel has nothing to do with battle or soldiers, the war sets the tone of the scenes and organizes the lives of the people from whom the protagonist is cut off by his emerging sexuality. What’s more, the war seems to stand in allegorical relationship to that sexuality, and the protagonist perceives violence–especially martial violence–in explicitly sexual terms.
When I finished this novel, I thought I was done with Mishima. It was a dark and alienating book. But it is also a powerful one that feels major. And soon, I found myself at the library, standing in the stacks reading the first pages of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. I checked it out and now appear to be in for the long-haul. Mishima’s writing is difficult, heavily patterned and strange, but it’s also controlled. And I’m curious.
The book has four chapters each self-contained. The first tells of the protagonist’s infancy, his time living with his grandmother, and his fascination with the violent deaths of knights in fairy tales.
The second tells of his precocious sexual desires and their formation in response to Guido Reni’s painting of Saint Sebastian. (The young protagonist is looking at this painting the first time he masturbates, a scene that reminds me of moments in Mario Vargas Llosa‘s In Praise of the Stepmother). Later the protagonist describes his crush on an older boy by recalling a moment in which the boy strips to the waist and does pull-ups, a posture that echoes the painting and reveals, to the protagonist’s great delight, his armpits.
The third chapter tells of the protagonist’s flirtations with a friend’s sister during the final years of the war. This experiment is his effort to understand his desires and their connection to the feelings he sees the people around him experiencing and the relationships he sees them maintaining. From it, he discovers that he is 1) attracted to men and 2) not attracted to women (two facts that today we take to be synonymous).
The final chapter tells of the protagonist’s brief, post-war flirtation with the same woman although now she is married. The novel concludes with these two having a drink in a seedy dancing club. As they sit both knowing that by bringing her here the protagonist has ended their affair, the protagonist watches a muscular bare-chested thug and fantasizes about tying his hands above his head, stabbing him delicately with a knife, and watching the blood run down his side and onto his pants.