Patriotism by Yukio Mishima (Yukoku, 1966) translated from the Japanese by Geoffrey W. Sargent (1961) New Directions (2010) 60 pp
When we were newlyweds, my wife enrolled in a World Literature class. I still remember how excited she was after reading a Japanese story, how it held on to her for days. Despite her excitement, I didn’t read it for some reason. From time to time over the years she has reflected on that story, only she forgot who wrote it and what it was called. When Patriotism came in the mail, I felt certain I had in my hand a nice copy of the story she had read and loved several years ago. I read the description to her, and all the excitement and awe came back in her face. It was the same story. And I have now read it too.
A note on this edition: New Directions has just began issuing titles from its new Pearl series. The first issuance includes Patriotism as well as Federico García Lorca’s In Search of Duende, Javier Marías’s Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico, and Tennessee Williams’s Tales of Desire. Forthcoming are César Aira’s The Literary Conference and Jorge Luis Borges’s Everything & Nothing. In truth, some of these are shorter than novellas. Patriotism is only just over 50 large-type pages. Patriotism, though standing alone here, would be “Patriotism” and is available in a collection of Yukio Mishima’s stories also published by New Directions, Death in Midsummer and Other Stories. Whether you are willing pay for a stand-alone volume that forms part of a bigger series is up to you. Personally, I like having the story on its own, isolated from other stories. Plus, for collectors, the titles look great on the shelf together. And venerable.
I have one gripe: there were at least a handful of typos that interrupted my reading. In one place Reiko’s “sucks” slip on the floor — now I knew it meant “socks” but the error is jarring in its nature of being an error but also because of its preposterous albeit accidental imagery. I’m not sure what process was involved in pulling “Patriotism” from Death in Midsummer, and since I don’t have that volume, I’m not sure if the Pearl edition’s errors are new or have been part of the text for a while. You’ll notice in the paragraph below that there is an “eight-mat room of his private resident in the sixth block.” I’m pretty sure it should be “residence,” and if I’m right then there’s a silly error in the first paragraph. I have spent time in publishing. I know that errors get through, despite how many eyes cover the documents, but this had a large number of fairly obvious ones. I think I’m more disappointed due to the fact that this is part of a new series that will cost its readers a bit of money since each short story / novella is being sold for around $10.
Now, let’s move on from the gripe. New Directions does fabulous work, and I don’t want typos to distract us from the fact that they consistently acquire and publish at the forefront of world literature in striking editions. This is no exception.
Patriotism is a very strange story. First, you learn everything that happens in the first paragraph. I’ll start with it, since it provides a great summary of the story with preemptive spoilers.
On the twenty-eighth of February 1936 (on the third day, that is, of the February 26 incident), Lieutenant Shinji Takeyama of the Konoe Transport Battalion — profoundly disturbed by the knowledge that his closest colleagues had been with the mutineers from the beginning, and indignant at the imminent prospect of Imperial troops attacking Imperial troops — took his officer’s sword and ceremonially disemboweled himself in the eight-mat room of his private resident in the sixth block of Aoba-cho, in Yotsuya Ward. His wife, Reiko, followed him, stabbing herself to death. The lieutenant’s farewell note consisted of one sentence: “Long live the Imperial Forces.” His wife’s after apologies for her unfilial conduct in thus preceding her parents to the grave, concluded: “The day which, for a soldier’s wife, had to come, has come . . . .” The last moments of this heroic and dedicated couple were such as to make the gods themselves weep. The lieutenant’s age, it should be noted, was thirty-one, his wife’s twenty-three; and it was not half a year since the celebration of their marriage.
The style of this opening paragraph reminded me of the opening paragraph to a news report or maybe a short obituary. It lays out all of the facts of the story while only alluding to some of the emotion; in other words, the style itself here is not emotive. It is a striking contrast to the remainder of the story when two central events and their preparations are described in a direct yet lyrical style devoted entirely to bringing out the elevated emotions of its two characters.
Before the lieutenant even returns home two days after the failed coup, Reiko already knows what to expect. His closest friends were the instigators, but he cannot fight against them. His loyalty is to the Imperial Forces, so he cannot contradict their order. The only honorable way out is seppuku, the ritual suicide. Less than six months earlier Reiko had promised him she would follow him where he had to go. We get a glimpse of her cleaning the house perfectly to prepare for the solemn event.
It is difficult to describe the rest of the story because most of it is, as I mentioned above, a wonderful description of their complex emotions as they make love one last time and then commit suicide. But it’s not all emotion; there are some great questions being asked. Though the characters are composed on the outside, they are jittery on the inside. It’s not so much fear as it is anticipation of the great events — the love making and the suicide.
He folded his hands beneath his head and gazed at the dark boards of the ceiling in the dimness beyond the range of the standard lamp. Was it death he was now waiting for? Or a wild ecstasy of the senses? The two seemed to overlap, almost as if the object of this bodily desire was death itself. But, however that might be, it was certain that never before had the lieutenant tasted such total freedom.
Somehow Mishima succeeds in exalting sex and death, though he spends a great deal of time merely describing the physical details. For example, here is a passage that connects the imminent suicide with the current sex:
The lieutenant’s naked skin glowed like a field of barley, and everywhere the muscles sowed in sharp relief, converging on the lower abdomen about the small, unassuming navel. Gazing at the youthful, firm stomach, modestly covered by a vigorous growth of hair, Reiko thought of it as it was soon to be, cruelly cut by the sword, and she laid her head upon it, sobbing in pity, and bathed it with kisses.
There is also the great moment between the suicides that Mishima captures. I know the first paragraph of the story gives away the events, so I don’t want to describe too much of the emotion. Rather, I’ll leave this review with this interesting complexity:
Ever since her marriage her husband’s existence had been her own existence, and every breath of his had been a breath drawn by herself. But now, while her husband’s existence in pain was a vivid reality, Reiko could find in this grief of hers no certain proof at all of her own existence.