It was perhaps not the best book I read this year, but it came with the kind of extraneous charge few other works could match. The book was The Decay of the Angel by Yukio Mishima, the final novel in his Sea of Fertility tetralogy, completed just before Mishima launched a coup against the Japanese government.
I read the opening novel in the tetralogy, Spring Snow, four years ago, on a flight out from Japan. Since then, I’ve finished one book in the series each summer. Even as I’ve found myself in very different places, and sometimes in extremely different states of mind, I’ve followed Mishima’s brilliant and demented account of how modern Japan fell apart and was never quite put together again.
The story is told through the relationship between two characters, one of whom gets older in each novel while the other dies and is reincarnated, serving as an exemplar of the particular kind of transformation Japan is going through at the moment. Mishima was a right-wing nationalist, so I read him from a rather oppositional political stance. Yet he moves me with his obsessions: modernity, the west, materialism, sexuality, martial traditions, spirituality, love, the body, and the east, and I can’t help being touched when one of his principal characters travels to Calcutta and Benares in India.
This summer, as I read The Decay of the Angel, I became ever more conscious of the compositional history of the novel. My source was Paul Schrader’s film on the writer, which shows Mishima sending off the novel to his publisher before beginning his coup. It was an attempt, on Mishima’s part, to restore the emperor, but he failed miserably, with the soldiers he tried to provoke into an uprising jeering him. When he realized he’d failed, he committed seppuku.
I had all this in mind as I began The Decay of the Angel. But as I got into the book, its narrative overtook the circumstances of its completion. Of the four books in the tetralogy, it was the one I liked the least, but it remained impressive in grappling with the idea of reincarnation, which is really another way of thinking about what it means to be human. But when I came to the end of the book, I couldn’t help but think of the author, of the blade opening up his stomach, and of the finishing cut administered by one of his assistants. And yet when I turned back to the pages, they held their own, in the last narrative shocks imparted by Mishima and in the bleak but astonishing final vision with which he chose to part ways from us as a writer.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.