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The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea: Book Review

An old soul. A true visionary. A romantic patriot. A voyager of the human spirit. A painter who uses words instead of ink. A heavy journey through colourful metaphors. All of these are descriptions that come to my mind when I think about Yukio Mishima’s book, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea.

The novel’s action, split between Part One (Summer) and Part Two (Winter), is made up of three stories that link each other beautifully, in a narrative arch dominated by sensitive aesthetics, deep emotions and colourful violence; the stories are that of a thirteen-year old boy named Noboru, that of his mother, Fusako, and that of her lover, a Second Mate named Ryuji.

The action begins with Noboru discovering a “trickle of light spilling into one of the empty compartments of the chest”. This is a chest of drawers built into the wall of his room. The boy lived with his mother in a house his father constructed, “at the top of Yado Hill in Yokohama […]”.

Through this small hole, Noboru peers into Fusako’s bedroom, analysing his mother’s intimate space, focusing on each detail from how the light falls to the colours and position of items in the room. Mishima guides the read through the area sunken in the nightlight, as if a painter directs the viewer to travel across and inside their colourful creation.

It is through the velvet darkness that the thirteen year old sees his mother entering the room with Ryuji. “Assembled there were the moon and a feverish wind, the incited naked flesh of a man and a woman, sweat, perfume, the scars of a life at sea, the dim memory of ports around the world, a cramped breathless peephole, a young boy’s iron heart – but these cards from a gypsy deck were scattered, prophesying nothing. The universal order at last achieved, thanks to the sudden, screaming horn, had revealed an ineluctable circle of life – the cards had paired: Noboru and mother – mother and man – man and sea – sea and Noboru…

He was choked, wet, ecstatic. Certain that he had watched a tangle of thread unravel to trace a hallowed figure. And it would have to be protected: for all he knew, he was its thirteen-year-old creator.

‘If this is ever destroyed, it’ll mean the end of the world,’ Noboru murmured, barely conscious. I guess I’d do anything to stop that, no matter how awful!

And so ends the first chapter. Only ten pages into the book and the reader is fully succumbed into an abyss of philosophy, psychology, lust, love, physical touch, curiosity, colours, sounds and smells. Mishima’s world is always a constant whole, living, breathing its next self onto the following page and then onto the next page and so on, until the reader is left completely disarmed of his or her perceptions of what the world ought to be; realising that the world can never live up to that ideal and, whatever remains of reality, it is dying and in doing so it reveals its beauty.  

To the above paragraph, if we add a dash of violence and the idea that death, no matter how terrible, is not to be feared if it leads to honour, to something greater than the mundane, boring life, and we almost have the entire battlefield of ideas of The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea.

Noboru, who lost his father, is an unusual child: “At thirteen, Noboru was convinced of his own genius”.

The thirteen-year-old is part of a group of young boys, who behave more like a gang and who see themselves as enlightened creatures of superior intellect. Indeed, their leader, we are told, has read all the books in his father’s library and now he was bored: bored with the world, bored with his family, bored with the mundane and earthly ways in which his father behaved, regardless of how well-off he was. Only emotionless acts of violence, such as the killing and dissection of a kitten, could enable these young minds to assert dominance over their unexciting existence and, in turn, to provide them with a path to escape the terrible fate of their fathers: that of an ordinary man.

Mishima highlights the boys’ hatred for their fathers with the following passage: “Fathers are the flies of this world. They hover around our heads waiting for a chance, and when they see something rotten, they buzz in and root in it. Filthy, lecherous flies broadcasting to the whole world that they’ve screwed with our mothers. And there’s nothing they won’t do to contaminate our freedom and our ability. Nothing they won’t do to protect the filthy cities they’ve built for themselves.”

These are complex ideas. In a way, the words uttered by one of the young boys are meant to amputate the continuation of things in the human world: it is the rebellion against the passing down of methods and knowledge. Perhaps not by chance that the revolutionary and venomous words come from very young men who have had no real experience with the world, despite their proclaimed intellectual rigour. From another angle however, it is a more justified cry for having the freedom to explore and express oneself: after all, none of the thirteen-year olds are afraid of getting hurt or of dying in their quests to dent reality and either conquer it or escape it. More speculatively though, it is perhaps a way of ending all of history: the boys who do not want to be like their fathers, and therefore, who do not want to be fathers, are the men who will never pass down their genes, putting a stop to humanity’s decadent march through time and space.

Fusako’s boy is also one of these intellectually-driven and rational young human beings, in search of something more than the motionless rhythm of daily life: honour and adventure. It is this combination of ideas that Noboru sees in the Second Mate: for him, the sailor is a hero…one that keeps disappointing, however.

Ryuji is an ordinary man, at least in how he speaks and behaves. For inside his chest, trapped by the flesh of his body and the psychological ruins of his mind, Ryuji’s soul is elegant and mighty: like the old school Japan who cannot manifest itself anymore. We learn this from the way the sailor thinks about the world but such profound thoughts he cannot express with any eloquence: his words are blunt and heavy, although sincere.

The thirteen-year old boy is deeply annoyed by Ryuji’s personality which is the surface layer of who the sailor really is. Noboru takes this perceived dissonance (between the hero in his mind and the simpleton he sees) as a great offence because the Second Mate does not meet the boy’s expectations of who this man ought to be: someone destined for greatness – after all, Ryuji has come from the sea, the place which has been causing Noboru to dream and aspire.  

Ironically perhaps, Ryuji also thinks that his stars were positioned to lead him to something bigger than his travels on the sea and certainly bigger than his rejection of the life on land – a complex metaphor that Mishima uses to describe the trap of civilised life: domesticated, empty of risks and, as such, without any reasons to be!

However, this simpler version of Ryuji appeals to Fusako who, despite being far wealthier than him as she ran a luxury shop – Rex, Ltd. – needed a man in her life. A real man. One that was honest and who loved her. The sailor, despite being a letdown in the eyes of Noboru, is a pillar of stability for his mother.

Ryuji and Fusako love each other. And their love is sincere. They are also physically attracted to one another. The scenes of love making and of intimacy between the two are pure chromatic poetry.

Eventually, the Second Mate proposes to Noboru’s mother, pledging all his savings to her (which are not much compared to what she owned). Fusako accepts the sailor’s proposal. Noboru however is terrified of the prospect of having a father: after all, fathers are a plague upon the world constructed by his mind.

Darkness, violence and subtle melancholy awash the final chapters of the novel.

Reading on Goodreads a comment underneath the description for this novel, it states: “In light of what Mishima did to himself, I am not really sure what to make of The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea. While it is dark, reading it I knew it was only a story. But knowing that this darkness could have emanated from Mishima’s personal thoughts makes it extremely unnerving.

Fuskao, Noboru’s mother, represents westernization; which Mishima despised. Noboru, a thirteen-year old, is more in the favour of traditional Japan. Ryuji, the sailor, dreams of a heroic death and glory, which makes Noboru worship him. Ryuji’s dreams represent Mishima’s own political thoughts on achieving glory for his country. When Ryuji abandons all such thoughts of heroism, Noboru reacts violently. The question is, how much of Noboru’s psychology reflects Mishima’s own mind. That Noboru’s vileness goes unchallenged and unpunished hints towards there being some parallels.”

While the above summary is indeed a valid interpretation of what Fusako, Ryuji and Noboru represent, I did not want to touch on the possible links between the author’s life and the action and ideas of the story.

The two – the creator and the creation – should always be kept separated, even if they may be interconnected: a fingerprint from the creator’s physical body, a trace of their thoughts and a drop of the creator’s blood are certainly present in anything one brings to life. However, for a creation to be its own thing, the creator and the creation must be separated: it is the just thing to do for the creation’s sake; a book, a painting, a song or a sculpture are the same as a child birthed from the womb: their own, autonomous beings, carrying parts of the souls of those who made them.

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea – the main characters however are not these three people, and the main world of the book is not the environment that Mishima describes so beautifully. Rather, the main characters are ideas: honour, glory, adventure, freedom, revenge. These are the true players on the stage of Mishima’s work: the sea – a bed of chaos, unformed order, unknown adventures, great risks, sublime pleasures, transcendental knowledge.

These abstract but essential values and notions that animate all of us manifest themselves through Noboru, Fusako and Ryuji in a dance of darkness, glow and love. The novel is not happy, is not light. It sinks deep inside the reader’s mind, heart and even flesh as one cannot move, mesmerised by the impeccable flow of Mishima’s mastery of words. However, the novel is, above all, enriching – and that is what matters in the end.

As I have been writing this review, I have been reading another book by the Japanese author: The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. I have a difficult time coming up with a name of a writer that has disarmed me more unexpectedly and humanely, in an emotional and intellectual manner, than Yukio Mishima. Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Hunter S. Thompson, Jean-Paul Sartre, have all produced some of the best literary works I have ever read, but none has achieved such a deep and devastating communion with my soul as Mishima. I have never encountered a more sublime writer.

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