Death and Night and Blood: Why I Read Yukio Mishima, by JuleJames1961

I was, and still am, a big fan of The Stranglers. They came to the fore during the First Great Punk War of 1976/77 but were never accepted as part of that scene, too old, too musical, a couple of them had long hair and beards. After their first two albums: Rattus Norvegicus and No More Heroes, in 1978 they released their third album: Black and White. It was more cerebral, still angry, still unmistakably The Stranglers. They allowed their musicianship to come through more than they had on their previous two albums. Fourth track on the Black side was: Death and Night and Blood (Yukio).

Jean Jacques Burnel, The Stranglers’ bass guitarist explained in an interview in the NME, that Yukio was a Japanese author: Yukio Mishima.

And that would have been the end of that, except…

…I was 16 at the time and from the local library I was borrowing books in a methodical system: week one, three books from the ABC section; two weeks later, three books from DEF; and on until I got to XYZ; starting again at ABC. I chose books because of an interesting title or spine colour or cover art or, in the case of Clockwork Orange, notoriety. I read George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, John Le Carré, H G Wells and a forest of books that have since disappeared into the murky cupboard that is my memory. Then one week while in MNO I came across The Decay of the Angel by Yukio Mishima and thanks to J J Burnel I took it home.

If asked, ‘What is your favourite book?’ by default my reply is 1984, however, I can’t remember the first time I read it or how I felt. There have been other books that have left me astonished on the first read: A Clockwork Orange; Nicholas Nickleby; As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning; and The Decay of the Angel. I was hooked from the first page, he was describing the sea, colours, boats, the prose was extraordinary.

I can’t remember if I knew that it was the fourth part of a tetralogy or if I knew anything about Mishima other than the blurb on the inside of the cover, I know it was the only Mishima in the library. I was captivated, I had never read anything like it before, the words flowed from the page. The fact that it was the fourth part meant that I dismissed the character Honda and only in subsequent years would I realise that he was in fact the central figure in all four books. Kinue and Tōru, particularly Kinue fascinated me, a mad girl who believes that she was the most beautiful girl in the world.

A few years later a picked up a copy The Sea of Fertility containing all four books: Spring Snow; Runaway Horses; The Temple of Dawn; and The Decay of the Angel. The stallholder was a bit upset that someone had bought it; as she wanted to read it herself and suggested that I should bring it back when I was finished with it. It’s still on my shelf 30 years later.

By this time I’d learnt more about Mishima, his politics and his life, none of which chimed with me but didn’t diminish for me the beauty of the writing, in a strange way it enhanced it.

Nearly 35 years after I first read it I downloaded onto my new Kindle the four books that make up The Sea of Fertility, I spent the next year re-reading them, I originally planned to read one after the other but in the end decided to spread them out, I knew that once I started Angel I would be near the end and I wanted to put that off for as long as possible. This re-read was an eye opener, I appreciated the thread of reincarnation that runs through the four books this time, the ending of Angel made more sense when read in context of the series, if fact reading Angel this time I questioned what the 16 year old made of it. I was reading the first three books just as a prelude to those first few paragraphs of Angel. I was not disappointed, I wasn’t as astounded as I had been all those years ago but it was still a pleasure and there aren’t many books that can do that.

This time with access to the Internet I had the ability to learn more of Mishima the man rather than Mishima the writer which gave an edge to the stories. Having knowledge of his death made the almost loving description of the ritual of Seppuku more poignant and the failed coup in Runaway Horses is strangely reminiscent of Mishima’s final days.

His Imperialism, his patriotism, his violent end are at odds with his incredibly beautiful words and that paradox makes Angel more substantial, deeper.

The Stranglers at the time were unpopular with the music press, they didn’t take criticism very well, journalists were likely to end up gaffer taped to the Eiffel Tower after a bad review; they were the Men In Black, macho, misogynist. But underneath the black leather jackets they were bright, articulate, literate musicians, at least one of them had read and appreciated Mishima, and thereby inspiring at least one person to pick up The Decay of the Angel.

JuleJames1961 ©2013

JuleJames1961: I post a weekly blog on literature
and the sheer joy of reading. Everything from Dickens to Orwell via Ian Fleming and Enid Blyton.
Follow: @Readitinbooks1


Human Erosion: Stone in a Landslide, a review.

Maria Barbal, is one of the most famous Catalan authors, and that she be a Catalan is pivotal to understanding her work, as its history provides a backdrop to the fictional, retrospective life story of Concepcio (Conxa). Conxa, is born to a rural peasant family in the Pyreenees situated in Catalonia, where nothing is available in abundance, or easily obtainable “These weren’t years of plenty, there were a lot of mouths to feed and not much land, which of course left a hole”. For Conxa and her overcrowded family home, at the age of 13, she goes and lives with her childless aunt Tia. She works, grows up, falls in love, grieves and grows old like any average life in any world. However, written on the cusp of the 20th century and spanning its majority, we know its trajectory and its story.

Stone in a Landslide,  described as a Catalan modern classic, is essentially an allegory of Catalonia through Conxa’s life. The sense of identity strife not for Conxa, but this Catalonia, many people now regard as distinctly Spanish touches on hostile. For Conxa, the woman, emerging out of the Victorian era experiences the typical struggles of identity“what is a farm with a man? What is a house without a woman?”, and when she falls in love she goes from from being Conxa to “Jaume’s Conxa”.

Conxa’s initial life of peasantry is tough but lived with the acceptance and contentment of the predictability of life.  There is Conxa’s continual skepticism about the world and the gradual intrusion of different people grows “ I looked at the land divided into small irregular plots. I thought, even the richest man here is still very poor” and when her cousins come to visit “city people are different”. As she grows out of peasantry she grows out of her innocence and has to acknowledge that this world it is not always a fair one, and maybe the peasantry that she has grown up in, doesn’t automatically mean that she has to accept it however much God’s presence may be.

Like the land, and the lifestyle, Barbal’s prose is sparse, measured and pragmatic. No word is wasted, but it doesn’t steep itself in melodrama. When the civil war is introduced into the story by a letter from the cousins in the city, life is not turned up side down, Instead it is made more arduous, more painful, and almost unbearable but Conxa’s will carries her through. When her husband is  lost in the revolutionary fighting (we presume dead, but we never fully know) ‘everything turned upside down at home’, not in life but the home where is the source and grounding of the civil relationship. The Civil war acts as metaphor for a revolution in how the home is regarded, and the old fashioned archaic values are challenged as Conxa, despite being in in love with her husband is head of a household, something she has never experienced. Conxa later talks of her new home, post-revolutionary period “It was a spring clean i’ll never forget. I didn’t want to leave a corner untouched”. After the the Franco’s regime,  it is also the spring cleaning of her Catalan identity.

The civil war also represents the clash of the Catalan culture with the Spanish. Franco’s fascist regime tried to suppress any kind of Catalan culture; murdering, imprisoning, any kind of Catalan free thinkers, in a brutal repatriation where neighbours and friends were turned against each other. Conxa encounters this in her church, which also leads to her and her people’s earlier downfall “They made us pray in the morning and at night. I didn’t know the prayers in Spanish and I just pretended by moving my lips”. This poignant moment represents the past and present day struggles that Catalan’s still have in distinguishing themselves from Spain.

Towards the end, when Conxa’s children are starting to grow old and fly the nest, she must come to terms with her growing age, and the dawning of being cared for and living in the new big city. Barbal’s prose becomes more lyrical in the closing scenes as Conxa contemplates and comprehends what it means to live in the city “ Barcelona is not knowing anyone. Only the family. And sometimes hearing foreign words spoken. It is losing the memory of the sound of the animals at home as you look at the dogs chained at dusk”. It is difficult to pinpoint year this is, but it is certainly post-war, and in the time of the early excitement of capitalism, the boom of  money moving around the western world, and everybody thinking that they had a chance to succeed in it. Barcelona  we know  now is a tourist hotspot, like London or Paris, it is difficult to spot the Catalans amongst the other nationalities getting their fulfillment of Polaroid shots and Lionel Messi football shirts. Conxa who has lived most of her life in peasantry cannot comprehend this (not Lionel Messi), and her early inclinations of wealth and people from the city come to a head in this final section. Life was happy when Conxa had that innocence before she became aware of the world outside the Pyrenees and before the war. In fact it is worth reading through to get to this end section, so distinct from the rest of it. The reader is carried along by Conxa’s life story, and Barbal succeeds in leaving us as the observer. It is intimate, but not so much that you’re taken away by the intensity of it, which is remarkable considering its length. Barbal’s narrative voice is to thank for that.

This is the first time that the work has been published in English, done by the independent publishing house Peirene Press, devoting their time to small works of European fiction. Stone in a Landslide was first published in 1985 and one has to question why this is the first time we have seen it in England. Well, we don’t have to ask, because we know why – money and marketability. Peirene Press though is doing a remarkable job getting these little known works in England known, and they should hopefully start circulate through the market and gain a reputation.

A short piece of work (Peirene say that it should be read in one sitting, during the time taken to watch a DVD) but a mesmerising one. It is a paean to the homeland, to Catalonia and its troubled history, but it is also a paean to the home and the construction of it, thanks to the woman, Conxa and her indomitable spirit. A life of love and loss, like of many, she is a stone in a landslide.

Stone in Landslide (126 pp)  is published Peirene Press and is available for £8.99. A smaller version of this review is featured on Visit there now to read about other works dedicated to various locations in the world.