Peasants and Poets

Thirst for Love

by Yukio Mishima, translated by Alfred H. Marks
Knopf, 200 pp., $4.95

Sensei and His People

by Yoshie Sugihara and David W. Plath
California, 204 pp., $5.95

Japanese Poetic Diaries

selected and translated by Earl Miner
California, 228 pp., $6.95

Isn’t the market for Japanese fiction just about swamped? Or maybe, since I have passed straight from reviewing Mishima’s Forbidden Colors to reviewing Mishima’s Thirst for Love, it is simply my personal market whose thirst has been quenched—temporarily at least. Moving from the first novel’s urban scene of “gay” bars to the Japanese version of Cold Comfort Farm in the second, one notes that something remains common: the largely arbitrary nature of what is felt and thought and done and suffered, as if Mishima’s motto were “Only disconnect.”

In an article in Life back in 1966, John Nathan said that “reading a Mishima novel can be like going to an exhibition of the world’s most lavish and ornate picture frames.” The term which occurred to me in reading Forbidden Colors was “wax museum,” a gallery of non-characters about whom we come to know everything except the mainspring of their being. Where that should be, there is a large empty space, a deafening silence. Forbidden Colors is an icy museum, containing an aging writer who sounds as if he had been invented by a German-educated Oscar Wilde, a beautiful youth whom the writer uses as bait in avenging himself on sundry women who have humiliated him in the past (i.e., by getting them to fall for an irresistible homosexual), an ex-Count who has “been intimate with about a thousand boys,” and his ex-Countess who has “the reputation of becoming sexually intimate with any man within a week’s time.” These main exhibits are supported by a cast of what seems hundreds of more or less faceless natives of the less-than-gay demi-world of homosexuality. The story winds its slow repetitive way toward what looks faintly like a happy ending, as the beautiful youth watches the birth of his child and realizes that the vagina suffers also…. He inherits a good deal of cash from the writer, and this helps too.

Thirst for Love, which was published in 1950, a year earlier than Forbidden Colors, is a much smaller and more modest gallery of picture frames, neither lavish nor especially ornate, and it is largely free of the icy aestheticism and intolerable philosophizing of the later novel, mercifully sparing in mysterious “deductions” drawn from thin air or from something the novelist has failed to tell us. As Donald Keene remarks, the story is “economically structured,” which is the last thing one would say of Forbidden Colors, and you can see where it is leading to—though not, unless perhaps you are an old student of modern Japanese fiction, why it is leading there. Etsuko is a youngish widow who is (in both senses) living with her oldish father-in-law, in a countryish small town near Osaka. It is said of her that “not thinking about things was the basis of Etsuko’s contentment. It was her reason for being. This is slightly strange, since (though not a notable example of it) Etsuko is no exception to the rule that Mishima’s characters possess an incredible capacity for…

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