Sunday, May 21, 2006

Yukio Mishima - 'The Temple of Dawn'

I had trouble getting through this. Why, it's hard to say. It could be a bad book; I might just have taken too long to read it (I started it not long after finishing its predecessor 'Runaway Horses', a month ago); it might be the translation. Whatever the cause, from the moment I went back to it after the John Peel book I just wanted it to be over, to get on to the next thing.

'Runaway Horses' contained a text-within-a-text, 'The League of the Divine Wind' ('divine wind' being the translation of 'kamikaze'), which gave Isao the inspiration to form his little group of terrorists. It told of a doomed attack by a previous generation's idealists upon the Imperial forces, armed only with swords (the use of guns was something they were protesting against). The survivors all committed seppuku, a form of ritual suicide whereby the stomach is slashed open and a dagger thrust into the throat. After the first few suicides, this got pretty tedious to read about, like an 'a begat b begat c begat d' passage from the Bible. All very interesting to someone looking for a cause, doubtless, but it made for poor literature. It was over soon enough, though, and the rest of the book was bloody great (see below).

'The Temple of Dawn' spends quite a lot of its time investigating the theology / 'history' of reincarnation, or samsara. This is just as boring as the list of suicides, a good deal less comprehensible, and takes up a far larger portion of the novel. I got so fed up with this strand of the 'story' (it's really outside the story, research for a novel rather than something which should be inserted into it whole) that the rest of it lost much of its interest. From what I can remember though, it goes something like this.

It's 1940, eight years after Isao's death. Honda has become a prosperous lawyer, and on a business trip to Thailand visits Princess Chantrapa (or 'Moonlight'), the eight year old daughter of Prince Pattanadid, named after 'a fiancée who died long ago' (p. 33). This last is recounted in 'Spring Snow': Pattanadid receives the news whilst staying with Kiyoake Matsugae. He also loses an emerald ring on this trip which turns up again here. Princess Moonlight is, appropriately, a loon, who constantly babbles nonsense to her elderly carers. To Honda, she babbles:

Mr Honda! Mr Honda! How I've missed you! You were so kind, and yet I killed myself without telling you anything. I have been waiting for this meeting to apologise to you for more than seven years. (p. 40)
Honda, once the commotion has died down, puts two questions to the Princess, one relating to Isao, the other to Kiyoake: she gets both right without stopping to think. Peculiarly, for one so easily convinced that Isao was Kiyoake reborn, Honda (in the face of such incontrovertible evidence) spends most of the rest of the book trying to work out whether the Princess (later Ying Chan) is really the reincarnated Isao. The proof of this rests on the presence or otherwise of the three moles which appeared identically on the sides of Kiyoake and Isao. So he spends his time trying to see her nude, and even goes to the extent of building a swimming pool in his garden for the purpose.

This interest in Ying Chan's body is far from innocent. Meeting her again when she's nineteen, Honda becomes besotted, and rather hopes she isn't Isao so that he can... sleep with her? It's never really clear that this is what he wants. Indeed, in a reversal of the usual dictum that one most wants what one can't have, he actively wants her to be unattainable in order that he can remain besotted. This is the youthful infatuation he never had as a youth, unlike his more headstrong, more glamorous friend Kiyoake. He is remarkably self aware about this:

Falling in love was a special privilege given to someone whose external, sensuous charm and internal ignorance, disorganisation, and lack of cognizance permitted him to form a kind of fantasy about others. (p. 261)
And so Honda (though he knows he is doing it) cultivates disorganisation, forgets respectability. He becomes a peeping tom, sneaking off to a wood at night where young lovers kiss against trees and get it on amongst the pine needles. He has his villa built with single thickness walls (even though this means there can be no proper heating) in order that he can use peep holes to spy on guests at night. Unforgivably, he gets the nephew of his neighbour, the pretentious and spoiled Katsumi, to attempt to seduce (rape?) Ying Chan while he looks on from the next room, but he botches it, being not nearly so experienced as he pretends, and she sends him packing with a cut cheek from the emerald ring which Honda has tracked down and given to her.

Ying Chan herself is never a character in the way that Kiyoake and Isao were: she is the mere object of Honda's interest, and only appears infrequently and unpredictably. She has no mission, as Isao did, and as for Kiyoake's passion and contrariness... perhaps she does share these, but we see them at far more of a distance, and by the end of the book we have learned more about the shape of her body than the bent of her mind. After that outburst as an eight year old, she barely speaks (at least, her speech is barely recorded).

By the end, it is unclear what has been achieved, what the story arc has been driving at. In 'Spring Snow', Kiyoake achieves a surrender to his passion, at the cost of his life, preserving the infatuation of youth in aspic. Similarly in 'Runaway Horses' Isao demonstrates his purity and ensures that it can never be sullied by killing himself (though 'The Temple of Dawn' suggests that his penultimate act and his supposed crowning glory was, like Katsumi's cack handed conquest, botched). Shortly before the fire that ends the book, Honda sits with his wife Rié, who has caught him peeking at Ying Chan and Keiko going at it hammer and tongs in the spare room, and they both feel peace for the first time in a long time. Rié because she no longer has to worry about an affair between Honda and Ying Chan, and Honda because he has at last spotted the three moles on Ying Chan's side. This proves that she is Isao reborn, that Honda is still part of a narrative beyond his control and that he doesn't, after all, have to enter into history on his own behalf.

(Quotations from E. Dale Saunders and Cecilia Segawa Seigle's 1973 translation, Vintage International 1990)


Anonymous said...

Yeah I agree with all of that, the book was not even close to what the first 2 were, it meanders and ultimately goes nowhere, Ying Chan just pissed me off, and Honda turns out to be a peeper? Jeez. Makes me wonder if Mishima was really as good a writer as people say, if he hadn't committed seppuku and was glorified for that would they feel the same? Doubtful.

Chris said...

If he wasn't as good as people say, he couldn't have written the first two, of course. 'The Temple of Dawn' is such a shift, and such an unsympathetic one... there must be something about it we're not getting, don't you think?

Anonymous said...

wow, i've never been more offended on the internet as i was by the first anonymous commenter here. you explain your thoughts as a child, you make broad assumptions and nonsensical, insulting generalizations of the most important Japanese novelist of all time, and most of all, you speak as if you know what it is you say. Honda is not a "peeper" the book does not "go nowhere" and you obviously did not understand the first two novels if you think any of this in regards to the temple of dawn.

DOUBTFUL!!!! !!!

johnnho2 said...

The second anonymous says "insulting generalizations of the most important Japanese novelist of all time". However much I admire Mishima I think that the most important Japanese novelist of all time is Murasaki Shikikbu. After all she wrote the world's first novel one thousand years ago. A novel that is still among the best ever written.

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