Tuesday 20 July 2010

As a matter of principle disbelieving in the existance of other people

I've read a fair number of Yukio Mishima's novels, but After the Banquet is the first, in my experience, to deal with something so quotidien and unwashed as politics. For this reason, it was a welcome surprise for while I am a committed and long-term Mishima fan, I do acknowledge that sometimes his books can be rather too similar to one another. That said, I think I prefer his frequent forays into the messy marriage of spiritual and sexual obsession to the mingling of half-hearted sexual interest with politics.

After the Banquet (1960; translated by Donald Keene) tells the story of the unlikely union of Kazu and Noguchi, a vibrant middle-aged proprietress of a restaurant frequented by politicians and an aging former ambassador who decides to run for election on the Radical ticket. There are no sweaty and fraught sexual encounters as the cover of this edition of the novel suggestions, and as often occur in Mishima's other novels; there couldn't be really. For while Kazu is bursting with energy, it isn't really a sexual energy; and Nogushi is somewhat of an ancient piece of parchment in this regard.

Nonetheless, in this rarefied atmosphere of political intrigue, what Mishima reveals about his characters suggested to me that together these two might well have been able to create a crackling political dynasty. Of Kazu we're told that
The proprietress of the Setsugoan was called Kazu Fukuzawa. A streak of rustic simplicity in Kazu’s plump, attractive figure, always bursting with energy and enthusiasm, made people with complicated motives who came to before her feel ashamed of their complexity. People with drooping spirits, when they saw Kazu, were either considerably heartened or else completely overpowered. Some curious blessing of heaven had joined in one body a man’s resolution with a woman’s reckless enthusiasm. This combination carried Kazu to heights no man could reach. (p. 4)
Kazu has energy and, much more importantly, guts - and in the attempt to revive and elevate to previously unknown heights Noguchi's political career, she shows not only that she will take enormous social risks, but also that she is savvy and creative about winning people over. She is the personality and jazz hands yin to Noguchi's propriety and thoughtfulness yang. The problem, perhaps, is that neither Kazu nor Noguchi ever realize how well they could be complementing one another in this political quest. Kazu is no doubt correct when she observes how similar are the tactics, aims, and appearances of the politician to the geisha:
Kazu had the utmost respect for her husband’s character, but it was hard for her to see wherein lay the difference between his politics and those she had seen and heard at the Setsugoan. Her glimpses of Conservative Party politicians at the Setsugoan had inculcated in Kazu a splendid notion of the nature of their work. Politics meant pretending to step out to the men’s room and then completely disappearing, forcing a man’s back to the wall while cheerfully sharing the same fire, making a show of laughter when one is angry or flying into a rage when one is not in the least upset, sitting for a long time without saying a word, quietly flicking specks of dust off one’s sleeve…in short, acting very much like a geisha. (p. 102)
However, no matter how well Kazu is able to use this observation to her advantage when she's out in the thick of political campaigning, she can't figure out how to place her extremely straightforward husband within her scheming and machinations in order to legitimate both. Indeed, all she can see is how his very existence contradicts what she correctly ascertains is the basic nature of political gamesmanship:
A world formed by the intellect and composed of exclusively intellectual elements lay outside her comprehension. Her common sense told her that everything must have its other side. But what continually amazed her in Noguchi was that he was one man without another side: he seemed to have no other face but the one he showed her. Kazu, of course, as a matter of principle disbelieved in the existence of such people. (p. 53)
Indeed, this failure to accept, comprehend, and integrate him into her larger political plans - which are ostensibly made and executed entirely on his behalf - results not only in political failure in the end but also marital failure. This is not to say that Noguchi is not complicit in his loss of the election or the disintegration of his marriage; on the contrary, both characters are equally incapable of seeing each other's differences in approach and philosophical outlook as anything but stumbling blocks to either success or any kind of contentment, never mind active happiness.

Indeed, Kazu and Noguchi are remarkably similar insofar as neither are truly capable of seeing other people as entirely real. Only their individual ambitions and motivations exist beyond the theoretical for either of them, and they are thus doomed, from the beginning, to end up precisely where they began - both literally and emotionally - in insulated worlds of their own creation and for their own comfort, lonely though they may be.

All the elements of a good Mishima-esque novelistic devastation of the mind and soul are here, but everything is curiously lacking in pathos and energy - often, even, when Kazu's energy is being described in detail. Ennui, rather, is the dominant mode not only of the characters' lives and choices but also of the narration itself; as the result, the entire tale comes off as curiously flat. In the end, After the Banquet is a fairly enjoyable novel but not a memorable one.


Mel u said...

great review-so far I have read only one of his works-The Sailor Who fell from Grace with the Sea but I plan to read all of his works in trans. eventually

Unknown said...

Not one of his best, but enjoyable all the same. It definitely has that sense of 'ennui' and inevitablility about it. I do like a bit of politics though, and it's fun to compare this campaign with the ones in Trollope's novels and the very different one depicted in Naipaul's 'Thh Suffrage of Elvira' :)

Stefanie said...

Maybe not his most memorable but it still sounds pretty good. I read one of his books of short stories a few years ago and really liked them. I must get myself around to reading his novels.

Anonymous said...

I'm thinking of giving Mishima Yukio's books a go this year and was thinking of Spring Snow. What would you recommend to start with (I don't think I'm quite ready for a book about politics)?

Bookphilia said...

mel u: That's one of my favourites, except for the disturbing bit with the kitten.

Tony: I find the political stuff MUCH more satisfying and engaging in Trollope's novels than I did in After the Banquet. I suspect it's because Trollope had a more than simply cerebral interest in them himself.

Stefanie: Was it Acts of Worship? That book is AMAZING!

chasingbawa: I think Confessions of a Mask is my favourite - and unlike Spring Snow, it's not the first book in a 4-part series, so it might be a better place to begin. :)

Stefanie said...

yes, yes, that was it! It was pretty amazing. a good many of the stories left me breathless.

Bookphilia said...

Stefanie: Me too! I should really re-read that one.