Thursday, May 13, 2010

Yukio Mishima, "The Decay of the Angel"

(Vintage, 1990) 

The Decay of the Angel is the final book of Mishima's "Sea of Fertility" tetralogy. You'll recall that the series follows the life of Honda, a dry legal type born in Japan in the last decade of the 19th century. Throughout the cycle Honda encounters successive reincarnations of a school friend who dies at the end of the first novel. Here we find him pushing eighty, adopting a teenager named Toru whom he suspects is the latest reincarnation. His goal is to teach Toru, who embodies for him a rare nature incapable of lasting in this world, how to join the stream of the everyday, and thereby survive longer than his predecessors. It becomes clear as the novel progresses that Toru is either a fraud, or a corrupt shadow version of Honda's school friend. Where Kiyoaki, Isao and Ying Chan embodied ardour, purity and physical beauty, Toru is a vulgar, detached and narrow-minded spectator who becomes a vulgar, psychopathic self-maximizer under Honda's well-meaning tutelage.

The title of the novel refers to Buddhist and Hindu traditions enumerating the signs of an angel's decay (angels are superhuman, but still caught in the karmic cycle and thereby mortal). The closing episode concerning Toru offers a chilling tableau of these signs. More generally, the themes of old age and the latency of decay in even the most youthful, thriving beauty are driven home throughout the novel. If I had to zero in on one theme of prime interpretive importance (this being typical Mishima fare, and therefore bursting with half-finished ideas and blind alleys), I would draw attention to the role played by the perceiving mind/subject. You'll recall that I flagged this as an important theme in the novel's predecessor, The Temple of Dawn. Here Honda, having long since become a voyeur, will come to terms with the vanity of even his voyeuristic detachment. Toru, moreover, will embody this transition in a violent, disturbing manner.

Mishima sent the novel to his publisher in 1970, the day he committed ritual suicide following an abortive, bizarrely staged ultranationalist coup. For this reason it's tempting to read the book as his testament. I'm not convinced, however, that it provides a coherent key to its author's actions (the novel is strangely divorced from politics, for instance), though it does distill nicely some of his most important concerns. One imagines Mishima ending his life at the onset of much-feared decay, yet at the same time waxing strangely ironical about his gesture. To read The Decay of the Angel is to immerse oneself in supreme bitterness, on the strength of the remotest possibility of letting it go.

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