The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima

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Kimitake Hiraoka, aka Yukio Mishima, was an author, poet, playwright, actor, model, and film director. He was considered for the Nobel Prize three times. He disembowelled himself on November 25, 1970. Two of his followers beheaded him, as Harikiri tradition demands.

Translated by John Nathan.

In the port of Yokohama, one hot summer, Noboru, a 13-year-old fatherless boy, a member of a pack of boys held in the thrall of its leader, the ‘chief’, who believes in the insignificance of sex and life and the overwhelming emptiness of the world where only acts like murder can fill such hollows, spies on his mother through a peephole in his dresser and witnesses her nakedness in the arms of a sailor.

The gang of boys ritually kill and skin a stray kitten:

…the glossy layer of fat beneath was like a peeled spring onion. The skinned neck, draped gracefully on the floor, seemed to be wearing a cat mask. The cat was only an exterior, life had posed as a cat.

Noboru thinks:

I killed it all by myself  – a distant hand reached into Noboru’s dream and awarded him a snow-white certificate of merit – I can do anything, no matter how awful.

It’s in modernistic prose in shades of Woolf and Joyce, descriptions of the imagination, terrors, and death. Images of, and references to death and the sea, abound.

The sailor, Ryuji, and mother, Fusako, develop their little affair his two-day shore leave. The sailor is a phantom to the boy; not hero-like at all. The boy, Noboru, knowing so much about the world is careful to act the boyish part as he joins his mother on the dock to see Ryuji off; departure is just another step towards death. Fusako is stoic; Ryuji keen to get back on board. The mother and boy watch the sailor’s huge ship drift off into the setting summer sun.

He returns in winter. The mother is there to meet him.

Ryuji slipped his hands under Fusako’s coat and clutched wildly at her body as though searching for life in a corpse he had saved from drowning.

Fusako surprised herself to realise that she had been waiting for him. Ryuji gives Noboru a carved crocodile from Brazil. The boy is careful not to let his boyishness show. “Thanks” but he is angry at the sailor for coming back at all. Not at all heroic.

The mother is persuaded, by the sailor, not to lock the son’s door at night, he’s almost grown; the sailor is helping the son with his maths homework; his mother is kinder and more devoted to him. A trap!

Noboru calls an extraordinary meeting of the gang and much to the horror of the ‘chief’ and the boys the sailor is attempting to create a family, a just, fair, and loving family – all lies – headed by the worst of the worst, according to the chief: a father.

A father is a realty-concealing machine …

The boys must act. The sailor has betrayed the world, lost his love of the sea, the only permissible thing, and intends to enslave the boy to his brand of nothingness.

Noboru could feel a lunatic courage welling with in him. 

They have done it before – remember the cat? -they can do it again. However, they must hurry because boys under 14 are not subject to punishment by law; and Noboru, and several of the other boys will be 14 come the spring.

With the help of a friendly invitation to talk to the gang about his seafaring adventures; a secluded location overlooking the sea, and a tea laced with poison, the gang begin their quest to revenge the betrayal of this man they see as a traitor to their cause. Do they succeed?

The book was originally published in 1963 in Japan as 午後の曳航, The Afternoon Towing. The title, as we know it, is a western concoction; its vague but poetic eastern syntax is reminiscent of the supposed colonial authority over the East by the West. This was very much abhorred by Mishima. He was a paradox: he basically lived a Western lifestyle and followed Western culture but raged against Japan’s imitation of the West. Culturally, he sought to promote traditional Japanese values as a post-colonial reaction to the West’s post-war reconstruction of his country.

His life exhibited a mass of contradictions: weak versus strong, masculine versus feminine, physical versus intellectual, eroticism versus aestheticism, elegance versus brutality, beauty versus ugliness, purity versus pollution, East versus West, ‘brave harakiri’ versus ‘defeatist suicide.’

You can find this and his other works here.

In 1976 the story, with the same name but transposed to a small English port town, was filmed; written and directed by Lewis John Carlino and starring Sara Miles and Kris Kristofferson.

Here is a short biography of Mishima on YouTube including an interview with him in English.

“When a boy…discovers that he is more given into introspection and consciousness of self than other boys his age, he easily falls into the error of believing it is because he is more mature than they. This was certainly a mistake in my case. Rather, it was because the other boys had no such need of understanding themselves as I had: they could be their natural selves, whereas I was to play a part, a fact that would require considerable understanding and study. So it was not my maturity but my sense of uneasiness, my uncertainty that was forcing me to gain control over my consciousness. Because such consciousness was simply a steppingstone to aberration and my present thinking was nothing but uncertain and haphazard guesswork.”
― Yukio MishimaConfessions of a Mask

The Dinner by Herman Koch

Dutch writer Herman Koch
Dutch writer Herman Koch

Like most people I read all the words on the outside of a book before I read the words on the inside. My expectations, therefore, for The Dinner were high, as such marketing blurbs are meant to do, and my idea of the plot fairly set: two couples, the husbands are brothers, meet at a restaurant to decide what to do about a horrific crime committed by their sons, cousins, and now on YouTube for all the world to see. And, yes, that is the plot but this book is about much, much more.

Almost a third of the way into the book I wrote this in my notebook:

“Koch curiously plays with time. He begins a scene well into it and then ‘flashes back’ to explain how we got to the point where the scene began. There must be a point to this.”

Yes, there certainly is a point to this. There are three time-threads: the present, the past and the near-past. Koch weaves these threads like plaits, focusing on the first over the second which gives way to the third which in turn fades to give focus back to the first. This allows Koch to mete out information and back-story one little tantilising bit at a time ramping up the tension, and the mystery, and making you yearn for the next bit, and when it comes it isn’t what you expect.

At about the same place as I wrote that above note to myself all I had to go on, plot wise, was one of the fathers, Paul, the first person narrator, had seen something disturbing, we don’t know what, on his son’s computer just before they left for the restaurant, and when he kisses hello his sister-in-law, just after she arrives, he glances under her darkened glasses and notices that she has been crying.

Readers also tend to take sides with the first person narrator because usually, and in this case too, he is so honest, straight-forward, and ‘natural’ in the way he speaks to us, “I don’t know how to put it any more clearly.” It seems it is Paul who is writing this and not Herman Koch. You feel empathy for this man and it is only almost at the end when you realise that there is a reason for this too. Enough said.

The short chapters run numerically through four sections, Appetizer, Main Course, Dessert, and Digestif but this simple structure is nowhere near as limiting as you may expect. The action ranges far and wide but always comes back to the restaurant, the pretentious manager, the fawning staff, and the two couples trying to be the ‘happy family’ in a public place all the more threatening because, Paul’s brother, Serge, is a famous polititian. Everyone in the restaurant knows that they are dining in the presence of, maybe, the next Prime Minister. The stakes are high.

But this book is also about family, and about being a man, but most importantly about being a father. However it is not your feelings and thoughts about Paul that remain with you after you get to the ‘End’ it is … again enough said. I don’t want to spoil things for those who haven’t read it yet.

It’s easy to see how film-makers have been drawn to this book. There is already a Dutch version, an Italian version which takes some liberties with the plot and structure, and there is to be an English language version directed by, and making her directorial debut, Cate Blanchett. Read it before the film comes out.

This is a ripper of a yarn and as Christos Tsiolkas says on the cover, it’s “a punch in the guts but also a tonic.”