lunes, 28 de enero de 2013

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion [Kinkakuji] (Vintage International, 1994)
by Yukio Mishima [translated from the Japanese by Ivan Morris]
Japan, 1956

Having had more than a few otherwise-reliable people I know of vouch for either the greatness of Mishima in general or--more to the point--the greatness of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion in particular, I'm sorry to say that this frequently snooze-inducing work of his left me with only one pressing question at the end: how could such a great novelist take up such crowd pleasing topics as nihilism and the nature of evil and make it all seem so fucking boring?  Probably more dull, heavyhanded, and overly mannered than bad per se, this fictionalized first-person account of the torching of a famous Buddhist temple in Kyoto in 1950 offers up some sporadically striking prose ("When I glanced at my shoulder, I saw that in the moonlight Father's hand had turned into that of a skeleton" [29]), some random weirdness (repeated references to a scene in which a woman squirts breast milk into a cup of her lover's tea), and some dialogue that could have been striking if it weren't so inauthentic as an example of spoken--as opposed to poetic--speech ("The world was immobile like a tombstone" [99]).  Given the imagery, might I have appreciated the novel a bit more had I embraced its "poetic" side and read it that way instead of trying to slog through it like a normal novel?  Yeah, maybe, but probably not enough to matter.  For, despite a multivalent narrative that can easily be read as both the confession of a madman and a brick through the window of Japanese culture during World War II and the immediate postwar era, teenage narrator Mizoguchi, a religious acolyte and morbid psychopath, is so drab, unconvincing, and underwhelming a creation that his criminal musings ("Is evil nevertheless possible?" he likes to ask himself [159]) and sexual confessions ("I wonder whether I shall be believed when I say that during these days the vision of fire inspired me with nothing less than carnal lust.  Yet was it not natural that, when my will to live depended entirely on fire, my lust, too, should have turned in that direction?" [220]) are more tiresome, banal, and at times ludicrous than anything else.  In other words, for a teen nihilist, a Japanese Johnny Rotten he ain't.  Whatever.

Mishima (1925-1970)
 
I read The Temple of the Golden Pavilion for Bellezza's Japanese Literature Challenge 6 and Tony's January in Japan. I hope that the surliness of my reaction to the novel won't be confused with my enthusiasm for those two events.

21 comentarios:

  1. I must admit, aside from his final tetrology, I've never found much worth in Mishima - or, come to think of it, Soseki, Tanizaki, Kawabata and the rest of the c20th Japanese literature. Which is no doubt why I've turned to the c13th for my contribution (still forthcoming).

    ResponderEliminar
    Respuestas
    1. Obooki, hopefully the 13th century writers will prove more fulfilling for you than Mishima did for me. I could see giving the first volume of M's Sea of Fertility tetralogy a whirl some day, but I'd prob. want to try something by one of those other authors you badmouthed first.

      Eliminar
  2. I remember being really unimpressed with something by Mishima many years back and I may leave my further reading yet more after reading this.

    ResponderEliminar
    Respuestas
    1. I think I saw hints about what people appreciate about Mishima, Séamus, but it was a much more "educational" than entertaining reading experience if you catch my drift. In any event, it will be a while before (or if) I ever try anything by him again.

      Eliminar
  3. Not a fan then? ;)

    This is one I did enjoy, but I can see why it's not everyone's cup of tea. Many people enjoy 'The Catcher in the Rye' (which I loathe) - books like this can really polarise...

    ResponderEliminar
    Respuestas
    1. I didn't find The Temple of the Golden Pavilion thematically offputting or anything like that, Tony, but I did find it tedious to deal with on the narrative front. Would that make it polarizing in the way you meant? I guess mostly Mizoguchi often felt completely fake to me, and something about Mishima's style seemed stilted or awkward as well. Anyway, hope you do January in Japan one more time so I can hopefully contribute a review that's a little more positive in the future!

      Eliminar
  4. I am totally not a fan of Japanese lit (too dark and depressing for me, as you might well imagine), but I feel compelled to defend Mishima just a little bit. First, I think one can't be sure that dialogue weirdness is not a function of translation, and second, I think one also can't be sure that dialogue weirdness isn't a function of different styles of speaking in different cultures. (On the other hand, one can conjecture, as one did in this case, that dialogue weirdness is a function of author weirdness, and one could be correct!)

    ResponderEliminar
    Respuestas
    1. Jill, I'm glad you brought those two language points up because I did wonder about them during my reading of the novel (i.e. something about the prose and the prose style felt off to me, but I'm not sure whether that was due to Mishima or to the translation or both). In any event, much of the dialogue felt wooden in a way that didn't gel with me whatever the reasons and I can't say I felt the authorial weirdness to be anything other than a non-compelling distraction. P.S. Interesting to observe the smackdowns of Japanese literature meteed out by you and Obooki. Can't say I've read enough J-lit to fully understand the dismissiveness, but no worries, I'll keep those preferences in mind before I ever offer to co-host a Mishima group read with you!

      Eliminar
  5. such crowd pleasing topics as nihilism and the nature of evil

    LOL.

    This is one I look forward to reading, despite your negative review, Richard. Something about the madman aspect did it for me. And Mishima had yet to disappoint, and I'm eager to be disappointed by him. I sometimes think he was the manifestation of no less than The Other. Of course I disagree with obooki's estimation of 20th century Japanese novelists.

    ResponderEliminar
    Respuestas
    1. Thanks, Rise, I rather shamelessly admit to being a little fond of that "crowd pleasing" quip myself! Moving on to more important matters, though, I have to say that even though I didn't really enjoy my time with Mishima, I'm glad I had the chance to experience him for myself. I think I can now see what others might like about him, but some other things he does (like excessive use of foreshadowing with phoenix symbolism in Temple) make me feel like he and I just aren't well matched as writers and readers. I do like what you say about him being a manifestation of The Other, though, and I hope the madman angle in this book proves more appealing to you than it did to me.

      Eliminar
  6. Sadly, I too was disappointed and f.....g bored. Not my favorite work of Japanese literature by any means. Still, I'm glad we've read it, have it in our mental reading library, and now can safely dismiss it.

    ResponderEliminar
    Respuestas
    1. Bellezza, we agree on yet another book--we're on a roll! Like I've already said a couple of times above, I am happy that I've read Mishima at last but I do look forward to trying out some of the other highly heralded Japanese writers I'm unfamiliar with except by name and reputation. One of them is sure to be more to my liking, no? P.S. Thanks, by the way, for the two or three recommendations you already provided me elsewhere earlier today.

      Eliminar
  7. Well, I read this book 25 years ago, and Richard's review brings back nothing, nothing at all, so maybe don't count on the security of that mental reading library is what I am saying. Its vulnerable to moths or book mites or something.

    ResponderEliminar
    Respuestas
    1. I hope it doesn't take me 25 years to forget some of the more forgettable parts of this novel, Tom, so what you say here doesn't faze me at all. Of course, I hope I'll be able to remember some of my favorite books for as long as I can--moths or book mites or excessive drinking in college notwithstanding.

      Eliminar
  8. I can't remember whether I was bored but I thought it was a bit disgusting. I read it as a teenager, maybe a bit too early but overall I just think Mishima really had a screw loose. I don't mind that per se but I'm not interested in his esthetically boring type of dysfuntion.

    ResponderEliminar
    Respuestas
    1. Caroline, it's not a particularly savory tale, is it? I think Mishima prob. did have a screw loose, but I also felt as if he might have been trying too hard to be "provocative" or something. It wasn't interesting "dysfunction" in any event!

      Eliminar
  9. oops - I meant esthetical and boring not esthetically boring.

    ResponderEliminar
    Respuestas
    1. I kind of liked the sound of "esthetically boring"--works for me!

      Eliminar
  10. The book I read by him the sailor that fell from grace frankly put me off his books for time being ,all the best stu

    ResponderEliminar
    Respuestas
    1. Stu, how interesting to see that this supposed big deal novelist seems to be attracting more detractors than defenders this week--glad I have some company on this!

      Eliminar
  11. I am, as usual, cracking up at your post. "Probably more dull, heavyhanded, and overly mannered than bad per se" -- yep, that's Mishima! I haven't actually read this one but your descriptions are spot-on for what I usually think of him (though I usually go for him when I'm in that "poetic mood" and end up enjoying it).

    I do hope you will go back to him someday in a different frame of mind though. I too recommend the Sea of Fertility books.

    ResponderEliminar