I was initially going to wait on this one, because it’s quite obviously Mishima’s personal triumph, the manifestation of the fetishes he harbored until he was able to violently force them upon the world. I was a bit annoyed by the translation of this title — Patriotism makes sense for an English speaking audience, but it loses some of the tenderness, and elegance of what it means in Japanese — love of the land. Love of the land could go into anarcho-primitivism, eco-fascism, a myriad of other dogmas and beliefs, that get lost on a jingoistic, Western audience (I know he would hate that).
Coming in at his shortest, and most brutal, I made the grave error of reading Patriotism over coffee before work last week. I nearly had to call out. I have always been sensitive to rich description, to violence (I cannot read rape, for example), to the sinister and insidious. Partly because of how my mind works, and partly because of who I am as a writer, and who I am as a woman. Across the feverish, charged, viciously erotic 50 pages, I encountered some of the most troubling feelings I have ever confronted within myself.
Mishima is notorious for his abysmal women — if there are any, they are mindless sex bots, flat schemers, or something worse. But Reiko, the dewy, twenty three year old wife of our tortured lieutenant is so vibrantly alive, so electric, so dangerous, I knew that I would not feel safe turning my back on her in an empty room. Reiko, even coming through the misogynistic pen of Mishima, distills the poison of feminine, the terrifying power of women to birth nations or destroy them.
On her wedding night, the lieutenant (he has a name, but see how important he is to me, a week later) shows his new wife his samurai sword, and explains to her that as a soldier, as a man of war, he may die today, tomorrow, the day after, and she must be ready. She stands and digs through her chest, and finds a beautiful, gilded inlaid dagger. She bows, and places the dagger on the mat in front of her. Man and wife stare at each other over their weapons. The lieutenant is almost a decade older than his wife, and she has answered his dare with what I feel is even more of a violent call, because women always have to know early, and they always have to be ready. The fact that Mishima makes that part of the story, is constantly repeating her age and her calmness and ease at handling her weapons, the almost glibness of her responses…I feel it is perhaps the only time when Mishima has ever really loved a woman.
The story pivots around a failed coup, where the lieutenant is asked to kill his friends who have instigated the coup. He comes home, and Reiko knows immediately that something is wrong. He explains to her what has happened and his decision — which is to commit seppuku instead of slay his countrymen. A strange pause happens — Reiko is not stupid, she knows exactly what is happening. Here, armed with the knowledge of what Mishima eventually does, I know exactly what is happening, knowing what I know about what he does and how he justifies it. It is the literary version of hesitation marks, he is taking a deep breath before he binds himself forever to this fate. He gives this pause to the lieutenant, and Reiko (and myself) wait for him to gather the courage to seize death by the throat.
The couple prepares. They bathe, they drink small cups of sake. They make love, in such a gentle, violent way, it brings the lieutenant to tears. He is obsessed with the taut, pale bowl of Reiko’s belly, the vessel that could have birthed a new nation, could have been his salvation, would have carried his line into the future. The passages describing the lieutenant’s caresses over Reiko’s belly are almost embarrassing, they are so intimate. Mishima was once in the running to marry Michieko, who eventually became the Empress of Japan. The fixation on Reiko’s belly is…fraught with the end of possibility. It is the most nihilistic of Mishima’s explorations (that I have read thus far), the complete end of a people, a nation, and a man, all in a pale bowl with slightly coarse pubic hair that tickles his lips as he kisses the void of her bellybutton.
Reiko sits across from her husband as he commits seppuku. She does not flinch nor does she waver. She is wearing all white, and in a disassociated voice, describes the warm wet seeping through her skirts, while keeping eye contact with her husband. She feels a duty to do so, but also a perverse excitement, thrill, which is mirrored in his feverish, glittering eyes. They are performing for each other, they are damning each other.
At this point, reader, I was trying very hard not to vomit. Mishima’s words (and his excellent translation) are spare, tight, and efficient. But this is not a time where I want efficiency. I desperately looked for fear, for second guessing, for hesitation marks, for anything to give me breathing room in this piece. And he refuses to give it.
I have never read anything like this before, and I doubt I will ever read anything like it again.
The hallmark of great art is discomfort, and personal reflection, and personal change. Patriotism has made me greatly uncomfortable, has made me reflect on my own ideas of personal duty and honor, and has forever forced me to reconcile who I am alone at night with who I am in the daylight hours.
An incredible work, an incredible personal triumph, an incredible masterpiece.