I never look at a beautiful boy without wanting to douse him in petrol and set him on fire.
Book One: The Frolic of The Beasts
I had to try and think really hard about where this began. In 2019, I endeavored to read nothing but books in translation. This was a difficult task compounded by that I wanted to read two translations of each, to determine which book I liked more. This means I slaughtered my soul reading two translations of The Idiot, a book that was a terror, in both versions. In some, this is impossible. Yukio Mishima still has books untranslated in English, and some of his most recent English translations were done by a corporate lawyer hobbyist in Manchester, England. I was also working six and a half days a week. On average, I read 52 books a year. In 2019, I read 20.
My first attempt at Mishima came through his friend and mentor, Yasanuri Kawabata. On a trip to Tokyo in earlier years, I had purchased a Kawabata a tiny bookstore in Shinjuku which the girl clerk very nicely wrapped in paper so I could read it in privacy on the train back to the hotel. It was very strange. The Old Capital, an outlier of Kawabata’s canon I’m told, even though it was cited as the reason he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. Twins, Catholics, questions of identity, choices and consequences, it seemed to be about a lot and also nothing. It seemed to be exceptionally Japanese I thought, as I moved around, isolated and on edge through Meiji shrines and temples. Nothing makes you feel as Other as being in a very homogenous ethnostate, afro, awkward glasses and the full body terror of being a disgusting American. I desperately wanted to go back to Hong Kong, to go anywhere else. But Kawabata was a pleasant surprise, that I wouldn’t have found if I had never gone to Japan, and without that trip, no Mishima either.
Returning to the United States after that trip was a mess. We had gotten so sick in Tokyo that I started a new job with barely any time to recuperate from flying half way around the world and then more. But none of that matters. Because I’m trying to get to Mishima and his body, and other parties. In 2018, I successfully read women authors from across the world. In 2019, I wanted to repeat this feat, but with a stricter caveat — nothing that had ever been published in English first. I hadn’t counted on my work schedule being so punishing — two part time jobs on top of freelance writing — and the strict attention one has to pay to a work in translation. When I started to (slowly, loosely) teach myself Russian, the whole of Russian literature opened up to me in a way I didn’t believe possible. Even Russian authors who wrote in English like Nabokov, suddenly became richer, denser, more textural. I would re-read one sentence over and over again, in English, and then Russian, and vice versa. Suddenly I could see the ‘missing stair’ of translation, the ghostly apparition of additional depth, only visible in passing or when your foot falls through.
It was with this slickness that I turned again to Asia.
My mother had converted to Nichiren Buddhism when I was a young girl after the death of my sister, and from the age of eight or so, I was used to hearing hours of Japanese recited rhythmically, like galloping horses, every morning and every evening. I tried to lean into those memories as I read Japanese authors, the way my mouth had to move as my child hands gripped my phonetic prayerbook, all the sounds spelled out so I could pray along with my mother. Even now, I can probably recite the first two or three sutras, no idea what they mean, but I can see the tiny yellow books and I still have the prayer beads I was given when my mother converted.
This helped with Kawabata. My mouth moved around the English words gently but assuredly, I understood what they might sound like in Japanese, it all made sense to me. What an idiot I was to think that this would work for Mishima. While Mishima is undeniably Japanese, he’s incredibly hard, incredibly cruel and poisonous, like a great glittering eel, slithering between my legs and squeezing my stomach. Kawabata often spoke of Mishima fondly, a mentor, a father, a friend, and gassed himself to death less than two years after Mishima completed his ‘pornographic gesture’.
And here, I have still not even gotten to Our Meeting.
In 2018 I became close friends with a person I worked with in Berlin. He’s one of my favourite subjects to return to in writing because he’s pleasantly blank, not even reflective like a mirror, but a cold, dark, pool. In one of our most recent conversations, he replied by 2021 I will be nothing but body. Mishima would love this! We developed a tradition of meeting once a year in Berlin and exchanging books over dinner. With the thrill of returning to Berlin as a stop on my way home from my bucket list trip to Russia, I told him excitedly that I would be going to MacDowell around his birthday, and he told me of his plans for his birthday in Hong Kong, and then the Philippines, where his wife is from. I returned to the United States, so blindingly ill I still to this day wonder if it was COVID-19, and prepared for MacDowell. In one of those millennial scrolls of internet death, I decided to look up my friend’s birthday. To my shock, he shared it with Yukio, the author of Frolic of The Beasts, that I had been stuttering through for weeks. I was enjoying Frolic, even though my tongue twister prayer tricks weren’t helping in illuminating the missing stair I was so sure I was falling through.
So I tried harder. I started over, and tried to read it at the pace of galloping horses, as my mother told me to recite the sutras, fast and hard and sure. It worked, and the world shattered. I sent my copy of Frolic to my friend for his birthday, went to MacDowell and totally reset my writing brain.
Pandemic and the race war halted any progress my writing brain had made during the smooth slowness of MacDowell. I was desperate for anything to make sense of the chaotic violent death around me. A friend had suggested that this time of chaos was readymade for Mishima, and I was surprised at the suggestion. So I started again with Mishima.
I have not stopped.
This series of letters will be about the summer of 2020 which I will be spending with Yukio Mishima, and disease and violence and death. The next letter will be about Life for Sale.