Sun and Steel
A white silky beach just south of Madras. Blue sea full of sharks, blue sky full of clouds like egret plumes. Nearby, half in the water, half on the beach, the gray-violet pyramid of a Hindu temple gradually dissolving as the sea with each century rises. In the foreground, the body of a man, headless, armless, with only one leg whose flesh stops at the knee. Below the knee, a bright beautiful white bone around which a rope has been knotted. The angle of the bone indicates that the man’s legs and arms had been tied together behind him. Coolly, I become coroner. Speculate sagely on the length of time the man has been dead. Draw my companions’ attention to the fact that there is not a drop of blood left in the body: at first glance we thought it a scarecrow, a bundle of white and gray rags—then saw real muscles laid bare, ropy integuments, the shin bone, and knew someone had been murdered, thrown into the sea alive. But who? And why? Definitely not Chinese, I decide (not only am I at heart a coroner—redundancy—but I am also a geographer of Strabo’s school).
I am interrupted by the arrival of a small Tamil girl resembling the late Fanny Brice. She glares at the corpse. “Not nice, not nice at all!” She shakes her head disapprovingly, hopes we won’t get a wrong impression of India. As we do our best to reassure her, we are joined by a friend with a newspaper: Yukio Mishima has committed seppuku (the proper word for harakiri) in the office of Japan’s commanding general; his head was then hacked from his body by an aide…. We read the bloody details with wonder. Such is the power of writing (to those addicted to reading) that the actual corpse at our feet became less real than the vivid idea of the bodyless head of Mishima, a man my exact contemporary whose career in so many ways resembled my own, though not to the degree that certain writers of book-chat in the Fifties thought.
Tokyo, Unbeautiful but alive and monstrously, cancerously growing, just as New York City—quite as unbeautiful—is visibly dying, its rot a way of life. That will be Tokyo’s future, too, but for the moment the mood is one of boom. Official and mercantile circles are euphoric. Elsewhere, unease.
I meet with a leader of the Left currently giving aid to those GIs who find immoral their country’s murder of Asiatics. He is not sanguine about Japan. “We don’t know who we are since the war. The break with the old culture has left us adrift. Yet we are still a family.”
The first thing the traveler in Japan notices is that the people resemble each other, with obvious variations, much the way members of a family do, and this sense of a common identity was the source of their power in the …
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Mishima December 16, 1971