Saturday, July 31, 2010

Spring Cleansing

I have to admit, I was thinking just a little of Murakami when I picked up Yukio Mishima's Spring Snow.  I knew, especially after reading Abe, that not all Japanese novelists are fantastic absurdists like him.  Sure enough, this book wasn't at all like Murakami, but unlike with Abe, I absolutely loved this one.  It's a fairly traditional story, but one that's beautifully written.  The language is just incredible, and the steady pace of the plot felt like an opportunity to appreciate the elegant composition.

I definitely am not fluent in Japanese, but I did valiantly study it on my own for over a year, and retain just enough knowledge to visualize some of what Mishima does here.  Familiar constructs like "As for..." made me smile, as did the myriad forms of apology.  I really regret not being fluent in that language, or any other non-English language for that matter... any time I read a great book in another language, I'm always curious about how much of what I'm enjoying is the original author's, and how much the translator's.  I can always give credit to the author for the idea, the plot, and the pace, but who do I thank for the excellent choice of words, the beautiful metaphors, the smoothness of the dialog?


Spring Snow is apparently the first book from a tetralogy.  It's set in Japan, obviously, during the early years of the 20th century.  I'm really curious to see where the other three books go chronologically.  This one seems to be set during a period where the nation appears to be taking its breath.  The main character's grandfather was a leader in the Meiji Restoration, which overturned the rule of the shogunate and returned the country to the Emperor.  The young characters have heard tales of that struggle, and of the war against the Russians, but their own existence is far softer.  It isn't faded, exactly, but more attenuated... there's less ambition, and even for those with ambition, no lofty goals are available to pursue.

The main character, Hiyoaki, is interesting in part because of his extreme passivity.  The son of a Marquis, whose great wealth and influence has caused their family's status to rise, Hiyoaki has been bred to be more refined and elegant than his predecessors.  However, that refinement and elegance isn't practical, and as a result he drifts.  He's indifferent in his studies, he doesn't have many friends, he gives little thought to his career, and he avoids the romance in his life.

You can certainly read Spring Snow as a coming-of-age story.  Hiyoaki grows up a lot, although not enough and not quickly.  It's very touching to see his relationship with Satoko evolve, and together with their relationship, how Hiyoaki changes as well.  He's kind of hard to like, but becomes much more sympathetic nearer the end as his experiences grow and he finally realizes what he wants in life.

Other than Hiyoaki, most characters are briefly and vividly drawn.  I loved the Japanese gentleman who deliberately emulated the English in everything he did, and his wife who chattered nonstop.  They're only on the scene for a few pages, but leave a huge impression.  Honda is an amazing friend, truly the Horatio of this story.  Unlike Horatio, though, he also has a complete inner life, which is tied up with a profound respect for the law inherited from his father.  Honda's relationship with Hiyoaki also gave me some slight impression about the complexities of class relationships within Japan.  They are sort of peers, but Honda can never dream of reaching Hiyoaki's circle, despite the fact that he is in every conceivable way (other than appearance) superior.

Hiyoaki's tutor is another brief but vivid character.  The image of him furiously sweeping out the grandfather's shrine is funny, sad, and admirable all at once.  He makes a cameo appearance towards the end, and at first I didn't recognize his name or remember his importance.  Once I did, everything clicked into place, and I was once again amazed at Mishima's great composition.


I haven't read many Russian novels, but from what I've heard, the grandeur of the book seems to recall something like War and Peace.  This is a tale of dynasties, of noble families, and of the individuals within those families.  They weave an interesting tapestry, but the threads of that tapestry are among the finest I've seen, thanks to Yishima's great wordcraft.  Like I said before, I'm curious to see where the remaining books in the series go.

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