Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Yukio Mishima, "The Sound of Waves"

(Vintage, 1994)

With respect to Mishima, so far I've blogged mostly about the more spectacular aspects of his life, particularly as these are staked out in or reflected by his various novels. I've argued that a work of fiction by Mishima cannot be adequately understood unless one takes into account the larger work of fiction, the larger spectacle, that is Mishima himself. 

The Sound of Waves appears on first blush an exception to this rule. The action takes place postwar on a small Japanese island populated by fishing families. The story concerns a poor but virtuous young fisherman who falls in love with the daughter of one of the island's more well-to-do patriarchs. The burgeoning romance fuels much gossip and ill-will among rivals, as well as many of the island's other inhabitants; the would-be couple seems doomed to unhappiness until certain decisive events and interventions change the course of the story. As in no other novel of his that I've read to date, Mishima's prose is here masterfully spare and controlled. Despite its ostensibly modern setting, the story reads like a timeless folktale and can be digested in a sitting of a few hours.

For all this, I don't think the novel can be chalked up to its regionalism, or to a mere genre exercise. My hunch is that it has a role to play relative to Mishima's larger vision. As I've argued elsewhere, manliness and purity are two of his abiding concerns, and here as elsewhere, the important thing seems less the tale itself as the man and woman he constructs in the telling. Shinji and Hatsue, the fisherman and his beloved, embody the kind of masculine and feminine ideal hinted at (and mourned) in Mishima's other novels. What is more, they embody this ideal unconsciously; through their unthinking strength, modesty, and determination, they stand as anathema to what he considered to be urban postwar Japan's self-devouring, neurotic, superfluous men and women (it is of course a fair question where Mishima himself would fit on this reading).

For this reason, I might be willing to rank The Sound of Waves among the great socialist-realist novels of the last century. But here I need to be more specific: I don't mean to suggest that Mishima's work is socialist in any meaningful sense of the term, and for this reason it should be considered quite apart from e.g. Gladkov's Cement. As I've stated ad nauseum, Mishima's politics were ultra-nationalist and rightist. What the novel has in common with socialist realism is, rather, its reactionary, nostalgic and mythical character (think here also of National Socialist art). Irrespective of the social form for which the fictional new man and new woman are constructed, they are offered with a view to criticising the urban/technocratic bourgeoisie of liberal democracy, and for standing as models to emulate. Mishima's future, in a word, is drawn from the past: the new imperial guard is the timeless stuff of Japanese soil and shore.

Whence the strange feeling the book produces: one gets the impression of being taken on a feel-good journey into a world that has largely disappeared, but where something sinister might be lurking in the corners. Mishima's trademark violence makes an odd but telling appearance early on in the book, when the narrator describes the death of Shinji's father in an American strafing raid. The effect is to suggest that there is no quaint village without its sea of blood and gasoline.

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