In an ideal world, a book could be read without your knowledge of the author influencing the experience. But when the About the Author blurb ends with “On the day he completed his last novel, Mishima committed ritual suicide by disembowelment,” it can’t help but add a certain … frisson.
And Yukio Mishima’s life and personality is all over The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, the story of a thirteen-year-old boy who takes exception to his mother’s new lover and exacts a terrible revenge. Wikipedia says, “Mishima’s sexual orientation remains a matter of debate.” That is one way of putting it. In the book, one might not be perturbed to see the male body (“His broad shoulders were square as the beams in a temple roof, his chest strained against a thick mat of hair, knotted muscle like twists of sisal hemp bulged all over his body”) described just as lovingly as the female (“Her haughty breasts inclined sharply away from her body; and when she kneaded them with her hands, the rosy nipples danced apart. He saw the trembling belly”). More surprising is the fact that the last description is the teenager, Noboru, spying on his mother. And when we factor in the explicit connections made in the book between sex and death, and of “contempt” characters feel for those whose suicide attempts have failed, the picture of a ‘debatable’ sexuality is pretty much complete.
Not that this is surprising. The other Mishima novel I have read, Confessions of a Mask, was a similarly humid, troubled tale, all nihilism and misanthropy, although The Sailor… has a much more straightforward plot. The sailor of the title is Ryuji, who meets Noboru’s widowed mother on shore leave and has an affair with her (while continuing his love-hate relationship with a life at sea). Noboru, however, is a self-regarding young man who associates with a gang of youths who share his hardline beliefs:
At thirteen, Noboru was convinced of his own genius (each of the others in the gang felt the same way) and certain that life consisted of a few simple signals and decisions; that death took root at the moment of birth and man’s only recourse thereafter was to water and tend it; that propagation was a fiction; consequently, society was a fiction too: that fathers and teachers, by virtue of being fathers and teachers, were guilty of a grievous sin. Therefore, his own father’s death, when he was eight, had been a happy incident, something to be proud of.
That Mishima allows Noboru’s beliefs to remain unchallenged, and even to prevail, suggests that this sort of solipsism reflected his own views. And knowing what we do of his life, that seems a reasonable conclusion.
The Sailor… is then a genuinely perverse book, and worth reading because of the insight it gives into a mindset that is alien to most of us. Those who are looking for empathetic characterisation will be disappointed, and cat lovers will be nauseated, but there are some fine turns of phrase to be found, like “the darkly heaping sea.”