Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima

‘Spring Snow’ by Yukio Mishima is the first book in his famed ‘Sea of Fertility’ Tetralogy. Mishima is a giant of Japanese literature, being nominated three times for the Nobel. Apart from being a hugely prolific writer, he was an actor, a model and a fierce patriot, who created and trained a private army in the samurai code, in order to restore the Japanese Emperor to his pre-World War II glory. His versatility and sexual ambivalence, can only have embellished an already charismatic and fascinating personality. And he was a beautiful man.

At the age of forty-five, Mishima completed his tetralogy, and embarked on a plan to achieve a military coup through inspiring and exhorting the soldiery. It was an audacious bid and failed spectacularly. The Samurai code demanded an apposite end to this venture. Somehow it seems fitting that this beautiful, edgy man committed Seppuku after the failed coup.

I did not know all this when I started Spring Snow, and I am not sure whether to be glad or sad.

Spring Snow is a straightforward story of a doomed love affair between two young people, the beautiful and tormented Kiyoaki, scion of an upstart Samurai clan, and the beautiful and poised Satoko, daughter of an enervated aristocrat. Doomed pair, yes, but do not call them star-crossed lovers: fate plays very little part in their affair. For a story set in early twentieth century Japan, when so little by way of ordering their lives was in the hands of people, there are no insurmountable odds to the happiness of the unhappy couple. Their woes are wrought by their own neuroses and that of their well-wishers.

There is a suggestion of Devdas’s vacillation and Paro’s spunk in the demeanor of Kiyo and Satoko, a fact that was picked up by almost all the women in our book group and exactly one man. But Spring Snow veers away from the pathetic and melodramatic course charted by Sarat Chandra’s classic, into an even more irritating arc of self-absorbed paralysis, followed by startling acts of impetuosity that have disastrous consequences. Are the storylines cultural comments then, for one does hear all the time that Indians need to be more decisive while the Japanese need to freeze less into isolated icebergs that bring down entire ships when collided against?

I felt the writing style was self-indulgent in how every action and interaction was analyzed to death. I found very foreign, the idea of telling us of the inner workings of almost every mind. I could not help thinking of Lata’s dalliance with Kabir in Vikram Seth’s Suitable Boy. It could not have covered more than ten pages, but the heartbreak of young love was exquisitely put forward. I shiver that I have had the temerity to preach minimalism to a Japanese master, but that is how I felt. Then again, it may be that in a land where the inner workings of the mind go largely unexpressed (as opposed to being merely ill-expressed in the rest of the world!), it may be impossible to demonstrate a thought through the words or actions of a subject. In which case, to analyse every thought process, and at every point, to present the reader with the author’s conclusions must be a necessary tool for novel writing. The simpler explanation could be that a lot has been lost in translation, or that the style is suited to serialization, with the digressions being a plot device rather than an indulgence.

As a group we are happy to have read this book for otherwise we would not have picked it up at all, and the complexities of early twentieth century Japanese ruling class structures, and the sensibility of the post-War Japanese literary class would have been lost to us.:) Pooja loved the book and intends to go on with the tetralogy. She was particularly taken by the theme of death that looms all over the book. Seen from this point of view, the book becomes a meditation on the meaning of death and life, set in the context of a young love story. The parables and the meanderings, philosophical and otherwise, make absolute sense. That is, if you are in the mood to hunker down for some heavy-duty reading.

Anu could relate to how the younger generation was portrayed in the book- their sense of superiority and a blind confidence in themselves. She also felt that the book showed to her that women could not be masters of their destiny in that place and time and that the poignant helplessness reverberated even today in modern Japan. She also wondered if it would have helped for Kiyo to reach out to a third person instead of sinking into isolation.

Varun found the book long winded and thought that almost all the characters were negative and wondered if that was emblematic of the place time and culture. In any case he felt that there was not much positive energy emanating from any of the characters.

Pulak felt that the book was clearly a representative of a different culture and would have loved to see it from the perspective of evolutionary theory.

Preeti did not think many of the characters were weak or negative- she felt they all fulfilled their destinies. She said she enjoyed the book although she had found it tedious in the beginning. Dhruv found some of the analyses very interesting and thought (along with Varun and Anand) that it was lyrically written.

Anand who had chosen the book clearly loves the author. He is a little blown away by the audacity of the young lovers, the enormity of the act of disloyalty to the Emperor etc. He obviously has more of a handle on the politics and society of Japan.

Radhi found something missing –probably lost to translation- in the similes and metaphors and I have to agree. I opened a page at random and put my finger on it with my eyes closed. This is what I got -

“Kiyoaki wondered at this man… How many passions lay spent within his body like a tangle of rusted springs. Far more than the jovial extrovert Marquis, his reserved and seemingly indifferent son was capable of detecting depth of feeling in others.”
A gratuitous tangle of rusted springs. And yes we got it a while back that the Marquis was insensitive and his son was all sensibility. But sometimes the translation works. (No random search this! I noted it while reading it.)

"You cannot hover in mid air forever like two dragonflies making love!"
A lovely simile full of humor, possibly the only instance of humor in the book. Elsewhere, I found the following metaphor beautiful-

"He felt regret that the morning light would put an end to the most extraordinary night of his life. Behind him he heard the sound- so faint that he thought at first that he was imagining it- of Satoko pouring the sand from the shoe she had taken off. To... it sounded like the most enchanting hourglass in the world."

This sentence on the other hand made me wonder about the effectiveness of the translation:

"Those who lack imagination have little choice but to base their conclusions on the reality they see around them. But on the other hand those who are imaginative have a tendency to build fortified castles they have designed themselves and to seal off every window in them. And so it was with Kiyoaki."
I suspect ‘building fortified castles’ is the idiom in Japanese corresponding to the English ‘building castles in the air’. I say this because you would say ‘build castles in the air’ in Hindi whereas you would say ‘building forts’ in Tamil to convey the same meaning. And until someone fluent in Japanese corrects my understanding I will continue to maintain that the translation for this otherwise wise and pithy statement has not entirely put across the meaning of the original.

This is not a quick read and is unlikely to offer any easy insights. Read this when you have the time to wonder about man and his place in this world – and how young eyes see it. Old matter in a new platter. Spring Snow.

Check this out - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPAZQ6mhRcU&feature=related

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