I didn’t get a WordsDay up on Thursday, so I’m doing it today. Sue me.
I first picked up The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea because of the title, which was waaaaaaay too interesting to pass up. It was 1995, and the first Vintage International edition of Yukio Mishima’s book had just been issued in the U.S. only the year before. It was my first foray into 20th century Japanese literature, and it promised to be intriguing.
The back cover provided a hint at something wildly sinister: “a band of savage thirteen-year-old boys who reject the adult world as illusory, hypocritical, and sentimental, and train themselves in a brutal callousness the call ‘objectivity.’ When the mother of one of them begins an affair with a ship’s officer, he and his friends idealize the man at first; but it is not long before they conclude that he is in fact soft and romantic. They regard their disappointment in him as an act of betrayal on his part, and react violently.”
The author, Yukio Mishima, was keenly concerned throughout his short but brilliant literary career with the clash that resulted as Western influences encroached on the traditional Japanese way of life. Sailor captures that conflict by exploring the real world versus the romanticized world. The sailor, of course, represents the romanticized world: the ever-changing, ever-mysterious sea; the sense of longing that comes with ever-leaving; exotic faraway places; death and danger and dark passions; freedom; glory. He gives those things up when he falls in love with a woman who runs a high-end shop that sells Western-style clothing.
With their derisive talk of a “illusory, hypocritical, and sentimental” world, the savage boys could be young, really, really, really pissed-off Hemingways, self-conceived paragons of manly virtue disillusioned with the world. There’s a good dose of Sarte-like existential angst thrown in there, too. As a result, they certainly don’t talk like thirteen-year-olds, instead lamenting that “[r]eal danger is nothing more than living. Of course, living is merely the chaos of existence, but more than that it’s a crazy mixed-up business of dismantling existence instant by instant to the point where the original chaos is restored, and taking strength from the uncertainty and the fear that chaos brings to re-create existence instant by instant. You won’t find another job as dangerous as that.” They see the sailor’s trade-off–the wild high seas for secure domesticity–as the ultimate betrayal. The sailor has un-manned himself by taking a woman.
By the end of the story, the sailor comes to realize the enormity of the exchange he’s made. “Whenever he dreamed of them, glory and death and woman were consubstantial,” Mishima writes, “Yet when the woman had been attained, the other two withdrew beyond the offing and ceased their mournful wailing of his name. The things he had rejected were now rejecting him.”
It’s too late for him to do anything about his revelation, though. By then, he has blundered into a devious trap set by the seemingly innocent boys, who believe the sailor can only be redeemed by martyrdom. Although Mishima doesn’t write it out, he sets up a final act of violence that could’ve anticipated Hostel or the Saw movies in it grisly finality.
The message is that romanticized ideals of tradition must be preserved at all costs–even though the act of preserving them causes a loss of innocence that, in its way, is just as horrifying.
Mishima himself lived out this very contradiction. On the day his finished the final novel of his four-part masterwork The Sea of Fertility, he committed ritual suicide by disembowelment. He co-mingled beauty and violence in his death just as he had done so in life. (Well, in his mind it was a beautiful death.)
Sailor contains some beautiful writing, and it’s certainly an excellent meditation on those things we give up in order to gain something else. The explicit violence, limited to a scene with a cat intended to foreshadow what will eventually happen to the sailor, was icky enough to turn my stomach.
But that’s the power of Mishima’s full-force, two-fisted writing. He mourned deeply for the loss of Japan’s identity in the post-war years, and he wrote that lament on every page.