THE NOVELLAIST: Patriotism By Mishima Yukio

Editor’s Note: This is the next installment of The Novellaist. See the column note here.

By Mishima Yukio
Translated by Geoffrey W. Sargent
New Directions Pearls, 2010

Mishima Yukio is not simply an incandescently poetic, unswervingly empathetic prose stylist and a professional weirdo — he famously committed seppuku in 1970 after his personal Rightist army failed to take over the Japanese military and arm it with nuclear weapons — he is also a logician not to be fucked with.

From Kinjiro (Forbidden Colours) onward, Mishima lays out stories that, however wild, are nothing if not logical. He is the E. A. Poe of the secret-to-itself modern human heart. When the sailor’s lover’s son kills the sailor in the very-short-novel The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, for example, our anticipation, our terror, is all the stronger for our knowing it all along — that the boy will not,cannot be turned from his course, because if he is truly a post-War nihilist with no faith in adults, he cannot make exceptions, even for the charming, down-to-earth father-figure of a sailor.

is even more tightly and quietly logical. An ahead-of-its-time-then, still-ahead-of-its-time-today novel, Kinjiro details a handsome young husband’s secret gay romances, which are somehow both maudlin and ordinary — both “epically epic,” to borrow a Scott Pilgrim-ism, and all-too-familiar — what could be the individuated products of any modern human’s struggles with the same societal and biological pressures (make money; make babies).

Patriotism is more dour, a logical meditation on its title, a true novella. The meditation is on a theme so alien to me — love of the Emperor, lust for an “honorable death” — that I expected it to read slowly. But it is a one-train-ride read. The whole plot is captured in précis on the back cover and the first two pages of the book; we can readily predict what will happen, thanks to our collective understanding of Japanese culture, the sister of American culture (make the robots bigger, add more flashing lights…).

But the logic of Patriotism is not without struggle and swelling, near-breaking, almost-giving-up. The novella would not be the focused movement-towards-death — the must-see ballet of death itself, death present, becoming-death — without some flinching, however slight, on the part of the young soldier, Takeyama Shinji, and his months-married beautiful wife Reiko, with whom he finds himself in his last moments increasingly, perhaps understandably, in love.

Their gift will be the gift of death, to their Emperor and to each other, and finally to a world beyond their limited understanding. This type of death is not meant, I think, to move us to tears (or to perverse laughter), but to capture our gaze for a few dozen pages, and then leave us as it found us, alive and unsure.

Takeyama and Reiko feel the need to remove themselves from the embarrassment of a mutiny on the part of Takeyama’s fellows — a mutiny they did not ask him to participate in because of his recent marriage — a mutiny that so eerily echoes the writer’s later failed coup that I can’t help but wonder if Patriotism is not, in the end, addressed at anyone but Mishima himself. This meditation on future-action, is not animated by its alien focus and unhappy theme, but by its very human center — Mishima’s feelings, unspoken, performed as puppet-act — which produce flawless, unhurried, unclever sentences.

Ben Franklin said, “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.” Mishima is very reasonable. Lucky for his readers, he is also an enduring and, for better of for worse, honest artist.

* * *

-Wythe Marschall can be found here. Previously on The Novellaist: The Murderess by Alexadros Papadiamantis.

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