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After the Banquet by Yukio Mishima: Review

After the banquetYukio Mishima’s 1960 novel After the Banquet was a new venture for me into the unknown territory of Japanese literature.  With the exception of Kazuo Ishiguro, I’ve read very little by authors from this part of the world but an unexpected trip to Japan late in 2013 gave me the impetus to fill that gap in my experience. I could easily have gone for some thing by Haruki Murakami but I didn’t want to have to carry anything huge around with me and anyway I wasn’t in the mood for surrealism. I went in search of something rather more in line with my preference for realism and that could be considered one of the classics of Japanese literature.

Mishima, considered one of Japan’s most important 20th century writers, fitted the need perfectly.   Although it’s not the work considered his greatest achievement – the four-volume epic The Sea of Fertility it’s still considered one of his best. The New Yorker called the “the most profound thing Mishima has done so far in an already distinguished career” when it became available in English in 1963.

After the Banquet is a portrait of a marriage between two people whose needs and desires are so diametrically opposed, that it’s hard to see how it could be successful.

Kazu, the 50-year-old owner of a fashionable Tokyo restaurant, is a passionate single woman who once had many admirers but has long buried her hopes of future love and instead given herself over to becoming a successful businesswoman. 

When she meets the former cabinet minister Noguchi, it is his quiet and intelligent nature that first impress her. Within a short time however she discovers long-held dreams and desires have been awakened; the dream of achieving respect through a relationship with a distinguished man of aristocratic lineage and the desire to belong to someone who will mourn her when she dies. The marriage gives her strength and the feeling she can achieve anything.

Her chance comes when Noguchi is approached by a section of his old political party who want him to run in the upcoming election for the Governor of Tokyo. Noguchi had really wanted to spend the remainder of his days quietly but had not bargained for the persuasive and fearless powers of his wife. Kazu throws herself completely into the campaign on his behalf, giving public speeches on his behalf, rallying the troops, planning and scheming how she can get him more votes.

She came to think that the election was her Heaven-appointed task. It was a game in which one used one’s energies agains a virtual vacuum for an adversary, a constant wager directed against something whose existence could not be verified. She felt that however excited she because, she could never be excited enough, that however dispassionate she acted, she could never be dispassionate enough ….Kazu was exempt from one worry, that she might be going too far.

Her patient and quiet husband just about tolerates her speechmaking but when she secretly plots with party workers to print and distribute 500,000 calendars bearing her husband’s picture, Noguchi’s patience is eroded. The dignity of this man with noble ideals cannot tolerate a wife who exposes him in such an uncivilised manner.

You’ve smeared mud on your husband’s face. Just the kind of thing I would expect of you. You’ve done a wonderful job of besmirching my career…. Does it make you happy that your husband’s become a public laughing stock.

The quiet man, the man of high principles,  turns violent in the face of his wife’s ambition and betrayal.

Through her ill-judged action, both Kazu and Noguchi are compelled to delve into their inner natures and to understand themselves more deeply but they achieve only limited success in reaching a deeper understanding of the other partner’s point of view. Noguchi sees his wife’s act as akin to adultery and anathema to to his view of a world  governed by fixed laws of morality. What he fails to comprehend is that the depth of her passion and the essence of her vitality make it impossible she will ever comply with his demand that she obey his principles and join with him in a life of secluded retirement. Kazu knows that such a life would represent the very emptiness she abhors. For she has come to understand that

…. she could never again bear any form of emptiness. Full, if tragic circumstances were preferable to a void. Kazu far preferred the north wind tearing her body to a vacuum.

The stress of dismay and disappointment over ideals that seem now beyond attainment, at the loss of everything they held dear, eat into the relationship, forming a gulf that cannot be repaired.

The slow passage from first hope of mature love and success to the shattering of ideals and the collapse of a marriage  makes reading After the Banquet an emotional experience. Mishima gives a wonderfully sensitive portrayal of the points of view of each party, showing how the spheres within which they operate cannot come together to form a new whole. Kazu is intended as the main point of interest; she is the one through whom most of the events are focalised. I loved the portrait of this woman who has to choose whether to settle for a life as a married woman with the respectability endowed on that position in Japanese culture, or to follow where her passion wants her to go.

Japanese kimonoAlong the way we get some fascinating perspectives of different aspects of Japanese rituals such as the prescribed order in which dishes at a banquet should be served and some tantalising descriptions of kimonos and a silk cloak inscribed with characters from an ancient poem. It’s a thoughtful novel of domestic conflict that comes wrapped with a strong sense of a place and of a way of life.  One of my best reads so far on my travels in world literature.

Sunday Salon: Some unexpected delights

I think I’ve mentioned before that when I take a trip abroad, I like to read a book set in the country I am visiting or at least written by an author from that part of the world.

JapanWhen I bought Yukio Mishima‘s After the Banquet, last month I had no idea I would shortly be on my way to Japan. I had bought it while meandering through the shelves of Blackwell’s in Oxford, purely on the basis that I had read little by Japanese authors beyond Kazuo Ishiguro. But it proved the perfect companion for my unexpected trip; not only was it a well-written thoughtful novel about a relationship between two people who want different things in life, but it introduced me to facets of life in the city I was visiting. Tokyo has changed considerably of course in the fifty or so years since the book’s setting but many of the cultural references are still valid. So as I read the minute details about clothing  and food that Mishima provides, I was able to ask some work colleagues for explanations and to see some of the items of clothing on sale in local shops. It seems After the Banquet is atypical of Mishima’s work but on the basis of this one book, I will be back for more.

If Mishima’s novel was an unexpected delight so also were two other books I’ve read in December: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by the Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid and John Steinbeck‘s 1945 novel Cannery Row. I loved the direct style of the narrator in Hamid’s book and the somewhat mysterious nature of his meeting with an American visitor at a cafe in Lahore.

Steinbeck was someone I did not expect to enjoy but this story about a motley collection of individuals who live on a street lined with sardine canneries in Monteray, California, was something remarkable. I read it after listening to the author Bill Patterson talk on a book podcast about this being his favourite novel and one he re-reads almost yearly. I had expected it to be somewhat doom and gloom post depression stuff so was completely unprepared for its warmth and humour. I can see why Patterson loves it so much.

So what’s next in the final few weeks of the year?

I’ll be reading Graham Greene’s The Power and The Glory for the Classics Club spin a long and also dipping into Alice Munro’s Dear Life collection of short stories which is January’s book club selection.

What will you all be reading in the next few weeks?

Sunday Salon: Replenishing the book stock

PurchasesWhen you have some time to spare and it’s a cold, dark November afternoon, then the warm interior of a really good book shop is the ideal place for any avid reader. Which was my excuse for popping into Blackwell’s in Oxford while on a visit to the city this week.

I have no excuse for the fact I emerged with three new books to add to the two I’d already picked up in the Oxfam shop (thanks to Ali and Liz for directing me there). It wasn’t as if I was running short of books to read. But it is hard to resist when you’re in the flagship store of a book seller in the heart of academia and faced with an extensive array  of authors and titles.  So of course I succumbed. But I did something I have not done for a very long time – I didn’t take out my wish list and head straight for those authors. I just browsed. My only ‘rule’ was to find authors I had never read before and, ideally, from countries whose literature I know little about.

I could have come away with a suitcase full but since I didn’t happen to have one with me at the time I had to curtail my enthusiasm.

Four of the new acquisitions will go a long way to helping me venture into more world literature but the fifth is very firmly rooted in England.

Diego Marani: New Finnish Grammar

The title was what caught my eye initially but the synopsis also appealed.

“A wounded sailor is found on a Triest quay. Amesiac, unable to speak and with nothing to identify him except a name tag pointing to Finnish origins. A passing doctor resolves to teach him Finnish to restore his memory.” Apparently this was shortlisted for the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Yukio Mishima: After the Banquet

I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by an author from Japan. I picked this one up without knowing that Mishima is considered one of the most important Japanese authors of the 20th century and was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in Literature. After the Banquet is about  a middle-age proprietress of a fashionable restaurant that caters to politicians. She falls in love with one of her clients – a retired ambassador – but conflicts arise between them and she is forced to choose between marriage and her independence. The New Yorker called it “the biggest and most profound thing Mishima has done so far.” 

Nadeem Aslam: Maps for Lost Lovers 

This is set in an unnamed town in England where a close-knit Pakistani community is disturbed by the murder of two lovers and then the arrest of a brother of one of the victims. It’s a portrait of an immigrant family over the course of 12 months during which their culture, nationality and religious beliefs are tested.

And from the Oxfam shop I picked up the first of Angela Thirkell’s novels High Rising. I’ve never read any of her work but there seems to be such a buzz about her on various blog sites that I  thought I’d give her a go. I also found The Hour of the Star, a novella by Clarice Lispector, a Brazilian author whose name I came across while researching authors for my Reading the Equator challenge.

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