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5th August
written by Steph

One of the things I try very hard to do on this blog is write something about each and every book I read. For some books, this is easier said than done… sometimes I don’t have tons to say about a book because it failed to make much of an impression (hence my tag of “mehcommendation”), but sometimes writing is hard for a very different reason.  Sometimes a book is SO GOOD, it just defies my own attempt to grapple with it linguistically. Last year I read The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima and it was definitely a case of the second issue. It was a brilliant book, but it was also very difficult and challenging, and in the end, I never felt like I was able to sufficiently collect my thoughts to say anything marginally coherent about it or that would come close to doing that literary masterpiece justice. I must admit, it was the only book in 2009 that I didn’t review, but I’d hate for any of you to think it’s because it wasn’t any good. Y’all know I don’t mind sharing my loathing of a book when that happens to be the case; words rarely fail me when I’m peeved! After reading Temple I was determined to read more Mishima. I am open about the fact that my knowledge of Asian authors is not nearly as good as it could be, so I was happy to find an author from that part of the world who really wowed me with his poetic prose stylings. One of the things I respected so much about Temple was that while it was very Japanese in its setting and its perspective, I found the writing very approachable and surprisingly western. Yes it could have been a good translation, but I tend to think that in order for literature in translation to really sing, it has to be pretty impressive in its original form as well. The writing was melodic and precise and incredibly evocative. I was really impressed by the psychological depths that Mishima explored in his writing, and admired that he wasn’t afraid of going to some very dark places. Perhaps with all these things in mind, I was at a bit of a disadvantage when it came to my next Mishima, The Sound of Waves. Not because this isn’t a good book in its own right, but because it is so very different from Temple in almost every possible way. It is a far lighter and simpler story, frothy like sea foam. It is at its core a love story between a boy and a girl, a romantic little confection for those who have been tossed about in stormy literary seas. My notion of Mishima going in was that he’s a writer who bucks convention, but he adheres pretty closely to the straightforward young love story we’ve all encountered before. Essentially it’s a boy meets girl, they fall in love, only girl is from higher social sphere than boy and her father DOES NOT APPROVE of their grand romance. There is a lazy but rich boy who tries to get in the way, along with another girl who is plain and overlooked but loves the first boy with all her heart and wants him for herself… Will the two lovers overcome all else in order to be together in the end? Like I said, nothing really groundbreaking on the plot front, but the writing was very gentle and soothing, which I actually quite liked, and made the story feel more like a folktale or a fable. This was also enhanced by the description of the almost pagan religious rituals the island dwellers carry out, as they pray for the various gods’ blessings in life and in love. I also really liked the insight reading this book provided into Japanese culture and its societal restrictions. In particular, I found Chiyoko (the slighted, homely girl who is book smart) to be really interesting, and I think her character plays out quite differently than she might have if a Western author had taken the helm. Honor and integrity are revered above all as one might expect in a Japanese novel, and so of course these win out in the end. In the end, I didn’t feel this was Mishima’s best work (although it apparently has its devotees), certainly not as good as Temple, but I still really enjoyed it for what it was. On occasion, I like books that do nothing but buoy the spirit and sooth the soul of all of life’s daily ravages. I definitely know that when I want to travel through literature to Japan, Mishima is the man with whom to travel. It’s always a first-class and varied reading experience, and I certainly look forward to exploring more of his diverse back catalog in the future… perhaps I’ll tackle his Sea of Fertility trilogy next time, starting with Spring Snow? Rating: 3.5 out of 5


  1. 08/05/2010

    I have read very few Japanese authors myself. I will give Mishima a go – thanks for an informative review.

  2. Eva

    This was my first (and so far only) Mishima, and I loved it! I’ve got Temple on my Japanese Lit IV list, so now I’m even more excited. 😀

  3. 08/06/2010

    I love that line: “frothy like sea foam.” What a perfect description!

  4. 08/06/2010

    I haven’t read a book by a Japanese author in a very long time, but your description and awe of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion make me want to go check it out as soon as I can. As far as this book goes, I can appreciate the fact that the first book kind of ruined you for the second. This has happened to me before, and often, even though the lesser book is perfectly good, it just really suffered because of the awesomeness of the first. I do hope that your reading of The Sea of Fertility trilogy is an excellent experience for you.

  5. mee

    When a book by an author blows my socks off, I don’t generally expect their second book I read to be on par. It’s rare to find that kind of magic, even with the same author. I guess it’s better to keep your expectation low, just in case :). I’ve been wanting to read Temple because Claire has been raving about it (now you). Haven’t tried Mishima. I really should.

  6. 08/07/2010

    It’s funny to read this review and actually get a recommendation of the other books instead of this one…

  7. 08/07/2010

    @ Mystica: It’s possible Mishima is the only Japanese author I’ve read… I hope to change that in the future, but he’s not a bad writer to spend some time with…
    @ Eva: I am really excited to hear your thoughts on Temple when you read it. It’s so very different from this book, that I’ll be really interested to see how you wind up feeling about it. It’s really brilliant, though as I said, it couldn’t be more different from this one!
    @ rhapsody: Thanks! It really encapsulated the vibe of the book, I think!
    @ zibilee: This is why sometimes I try to read authors in chronological order so that I can see how they develop over time and also if their stronger books are from later in their careers I don’t feel let-down when exploring their other works… I haven’t had any luck tracking down the Fertility trilogy locally, but hopefully I’ll find some of the books soon!
    @ mee: You’re right that I should probably not expect authors to be consistently awesome, but I don’t think I’d say this is a bad book, just that it was very different from what I’d come to expect from Mishima. I should probably only expect authors to have one really awesome book and be happy when I find it, but I always find myself hoping the rest of their books will be similarly amazing!
    @ Amanda: I assure you, that wasn’t my intention, but… oh well! The more people who read Temple, the better! 😀

  8. 08/08/2010

    I haven’t read anything by this author yet, and you have me intrigued! The Sound of Waves, being the most “frothy,” sounds like it might be a good one to start with. 🙂 Thanks for the recommendation.

  9. 08/09/2010

    @ Stephanie: Thanks for commenting! I think this would be a good place to start with Mishima, because it’s not nearly as strenuous a read as Temple of the Golden Pavilion, but still highlights many of Mishima’s strengths as an author. Plus it’s fun!

  10. 08/11/2010

    I’m afraid the only thing I know about Mishima is that he committed ritual suicide. And I have my 12th grade English teacher to thank for gory bit of trivia. I really should read one of his books so I have more positive things to day about the guy!

  11. 08/12/2010

    @ softdrink: Well, at least your 12th Grade English teach mentioned Mishima, even if it was only about his sticky end! I didn’t find out about him until I was 26! But yes, you absolutely should read something by him!

  12. 08/14/2010

    Ooh frothy.. I’m dying to read the Sea of Fertility tetralogy (but waiting for the new Vintage covers, lol). I think I’ll read all of Mishima’s works eventually. We share the love for Temple.. I wasn’t able to say anything much about it as well. It stunned me.

  13. 08/14/2010

    @ claire: I think Mishima’s back catalog is a bit daunting for me, but I do want to read the tetralogy, so I think I’ll make that my priority… And really, what is there to say about Temple that does it justice? 😀

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