Saturday, September 09, 2006

Yukio Mishima - ‘The Decay of the Angel’

from ending’s a puzzle. Look away if you don’t want to read about it. The set-up is this: at the end of Spring Snow, Kiyoake Matsugae walks with the last of his strength to ‘the Gesshūji’, a nunnery situated on a mountain near Obitoké. His love Satoko is inside, and has taken orders. He wants her back, but she refuses to see him. Kiyoaki’s friend Honda accompanies him on this journey, which he makes several times, exacerbating the pneumonia which he knows will kill him. Sixty years and three novels later, Honda, his own death approaching, goes back to visit Satoko, by now abbess at the Gesshūji. She recognises him, but claims never to have heard of Kiyoaki.

How to interpret this? It’s part ‘and then I woke up’, but let’s ignore that. The denial in the final pages isn’t enough to completely overturn the preceding four novels (besides, Satoko may be lying, or making a point, or have lost her marbles), but it does make it unavoidable to ask: just what is going on here? A question I’d have been quite happy to contemplate at the end of Runaway Horses, but which The Temple of Dawn made me lose interest in almost entirely. The Decay of the Angel is a big improvement on its predecessor, but it doesn’t make up all the lost ground.

In my entry on The Temple of Dawn, I wondered what it was that its protagonist Ying Chan added to the series. The Decay of the Angel has an answer, of sorts. Here’s Keiko talking to Tōru, whom Honda supposes is Ying Chan reincarnated:

Kiyoake Matsugae was caught by unpredictable love, Isao Ilumina by destiny, Ying Chan by the flesh. And you? By a baseless sense of being different, perhaps? (p. 206)

She is making the same complaint about Tōru that I made about Ying Chan: what are you here for? Of his predecessors he most closely resembles Isao, for his extraordinarily confident sense of self, but he entirely lacks the other’s purpose. He is frequently described as ‘evil’ (Keiko’s contemptuous phrase is ‘a legal sort of evil’ (p. 205)), but it is a very localised evil. Adopted by Honda, who spots his three moles on a chance visit to the shipping look-out post where he works in almost total isolation, Tōru at first plays along with the plans for his education. He learns from Honda how to eat soup, how to speak in polite society. His first exercise of power is to have his tutor Furusawa dismissed for being a political radical, his second (a deliberate upping of the stakes) to pull a similar trick on fiancée Momoko. Finally he takes over Honda’s house, beating the old man and filling all the servants’ positions with women he can sleep with. There is even a rota.

Tōru is a nasty piece of work, but there is an unreality about him which is worth considering. Over the course of The Sea of Fertility, Honda has become corrupted, not in his professional life as a lawyer, but in his personal life as a peeping tom. Tōru becomes the portrait to Honda’s Dorian Gray, his worst phase coming as a result of Honda’s manipulations (which are hardly benign: he wants power over his protégé, wants to crush his spirit, and to watch him die). Could the reincarnated protagonists all be reflections of the stages Honda goes through? Kiyoake, pure and innocent; Isao, pure and political; Ying Chan, lustful after sex; Tōru, lustful after souls. A gradual and a total degradation.

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