Book Clubbing - In Translation

5 Stars

Yukio Mishima
I admit to being parochial, but I have read only one Japanese novel in my life - in translation of course: Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima. And I read it because my book group selected it. Thank you Book Group!

Mishima is famous, infamous really, for the events of his life. A poet, dramatist, novelist, and essayist, he wrote over 40 novels, volumes of short stories, 18 plays, screenplays, and even acted in several films. All his major novels have been translated into English. He was under serious consideration for the Nobel Prize several times, but never won.

His infamy is not related to this artistry. In 1970, Mishima and members of his private right-wing militia, infiltrated a Tokyo military installation. After making a speech to assembled soldiers, he committed ritual suicide, seppuku, in the Commandant’s office.

The library owns a biographical DVD that paints a picture of his life, accomplishments, and death: Mishima a Life in Four Chapters.
Mishima a Life in Four Chapters; The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea
As for film adaptations of his novels, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea was made into an English language film starring Kris Kristofferson and Sarah Miles in 1976. The setting was changed from Japan to England. It is a dark and tragic tale.

Now that we have gotten my confession out of the way, let us speak of Spring Snow.

Spring Snow
Spring Snow

Spring Snow is the first novel of a tetralogy, The Sea of Fertility. It was published in book form in 1969 in Japan and quickly translated into English. The story takes place between 1912 and 1914, in and around Tokyo. Eighteen-year-old Kiyoaki Matsugae, descendant of a proud Samurai family, is an alienated, emotionally remote, only son of wealthy parents. With little or no ambition and few friends, but endowed with striking and extreme personal beauty, Kiyoaki begins an ill-advised torrid affair with Satoko Ayakura, the slightly older daughter of a distinguished, but economically struggling, noble family. Satoko is betrothed to a prince of the royal Japanese family.

And so the Kiyoaki-Satoko affair is both treasonous and dangerous. The denouement is life-changing for all. (Spoiler alert) Kiyoaki perishes, Satoko becomes a Buddhist nun, the friends and servants suffer and conspire.

The lovers begin their affair with a secretive winter rickshaw ride through the snow. Images and references to snow continuously appear in the text, like a motif of an opera. In chapter 52, well into the affair, we read:
IT WAS A MORNING when light flakes of snow danced in the brisk wind that swept over the plain of Yamato. They seemed too fragile even for spring snow, but were rather more reminiscent of a swarm of summer insects. When the sky remained overcast, they disappeared against the clouds. Only when the sun shone through did one become aware of the powdery, swirling snow. The cold in the air was worse than it would have been on a day of heavy snow.
As he [Kiyoaki] lay with his head on his pillow, he considered how he could prove his ultimate devotion to Satoko …”
And this year, 2016, it snowed in our own Mercer County on the first day of spring. Hmm….

And what did the Book Group think of Spring Snow? Here are some responses...

Spring Snow
Ann K. -- “Elegant in its style, this depiction of the early 20th century Japanese world of the wealthy and aristocratic was illuminating, showing both the struggle with and acceptance of Western influence by the privileged class and the conflict and sense of futility experienced by those coming of age in that period. Kiyoaki, the protagonist, beautiful himself and conscious of the beauty of the natural world, as poetically described by Mishima, remains emotionally detached until he is denied the possibility of marrying his lover and then he becomes obsessed with her. By turns passionate and dispassionate, the characters are fascinating and reflect the various strands of the Japanese culture. It left me wanting to continue on to the next book in the tetralogy.”

Nicole P. – “Although I think of myself as fairly widely read, Spring Snow
Spring Snow
introduced me to an idea of Japan that I had never previously pondered: an ancient culture wildly different from my own; one that reveres its semi-divine imperial rulers. A culture where the very definition of the individual lies beyond my own experience. Mishima's intense narrative, compressed into just a few years of its young protagonists' lives, draws us into an unfamiliar logic that leads us to the plot's shocking surprises. Most pleasurable is the highly visual writing, full of closely-observed detail, often charged with symbolic meaning, of homes and gardens of 1912 Tokyo. At the same time that we are drawn into the day-to-day routine of the novel's school-boy protagonists, we observe how they struggle with life's big philosophical questions, asking themselves constantly about the character and meaning of their lives, present and future. This rich vein of philosophical musing brings us into intimate contact with some memorable characters and allows the reader to enter the sphere of a few privileged families of early 20th-century Japan.”

5 stars
Sounds like a 5-Star rating.

-Karen S.


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