I had a very long break of Japanese literature. I used to read tons of it when I was in Singapore, but then I moved to Sydney, and London, and Japanese lit took a back seat. I don’t even remember what’s the last Japanese lit book I read. So with a happy heart I finally got to finish Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima — my first voyage into this master’s catalogue. Reading this with a nudge from Bellezza‘s Japanese Literature Challenge 9.
Even before I read his book, I was already fascinated by Mishima’s life story, including, especially, his death by committing seppuku (ritual suicide). I know, it seems all the great authors are either gay or suicidal.
Spring Snow is the first book in the Sea of Fertility tetralogy – a final body of work from Mishima. I’m imagining a dramatic scene at the end of his writing session in which Mishima exclaimed “I wrote my masterpiece! I can now die happy!” SEPPUKU! ;)
In Spring Snow we follow a son of a rising nouveau-riche family Kiyoaki Matsuage, and his childhood friend turned lover Satoko Ayakura, who comes from a declining aristocrat family. (The way I described the Kiyoaki to hubby is “imagine the son of Japanese Gatsby”) The story is set in early 1900s Japan, 1912 to 1914 to be exact, so I found the society dynamics and the underlying historical setting very interesting. I’m sure I missed a lot of the historical subtleties, but by reading this book you get to understand a lot more, about the rigid customs and relationships between the Imperial family, aristocrats, and upper class society in early 20th century Japan. The Western influences have entered Japan too, giving it an extra layer of color.
A semi-important character is Kiyoaki’s friend Honda – a son of an intellect, sort of the Nick of Gatsby, mostly hovering on the side of the main love story, and occassionally giving hand at crucial moments. Honda will be a very important character in the subsequent books in the series, but I shall say no more.
I have to admit, the beginning and the middle were a bit of a slog for me, and I really didn’t like Kiyoaki’s character as he was exhibiting an array of teenage angst (the early 20th century Japanese version of it). I found that I had little patience for childishness and youth pride. Mishima took his time in building his characters and setting. He was being very careful, and it’s great in a way, but you need to push through the initial hump. (The book is almost 400 pages thick)
But once I hit the half point, I raced through the book in no time at all. I finished it in my week long trip around Central/Eastern Europe just last week, mostly between city to city in a train. The end just hit me like a ton of bricks. The last sentence left me dumbstruck. It probably shouldn’t have if I knew what the tetralogy was about, but I never quite knew what to get from quick browsing around goodreads and wiki. In other words, just go and read it, no need to find too much what the book is about :).
Spring Snow has turned me into a Mishima fan. I have yet to see anyone not liking his work no matter which book they start with, and I used to wonder about this. Now that I’ve crossed to the other side, I can say, yes yes it’s true, he’s amazing, come join us!
I plan to read the rest of the tetralogy. I have the first one on Kindle, but now I wonder whether I should collect the paperbacks. There’s the Vintage UK version and the Vintage International (US) version. Which do you think has better cover? I tend to lean towards the US version (only if it’s matte though, not glossy) but it seems harder / much more pricey for us to get the US version here.