I have mentioned in previous posts the remarkable novels of Yukio Mishima that form the “masterful tetralogy,” The Sea of Fertility. I am still working my way through the third of the four novels and it is tough going: it incorporates a great deal of information about Eastern religious beliefs regarding reincarnation. Upon completing the four novels Mishima committed seppuku and I am beginning to understand why. He is fascinated with the question of death and the possibilities of lives being transmigrated into other bodies after death. His central character continues to meet the same person in different bodies throughout his own long life.
In any event, Mishima has extraordinary descriptive powers and waxes poetic from time to time. This makes for delightful reading and his characters jump from the pages and stand before the reader in sharp detail. One such character is “Former Baron Shinkawa” who appears at a party late in the third novel and is described as “seventy-two, grumbling and complaining without fail whenever he left home” — which he did whenever he could, since he loved to attend parties and social gatherings of all sorts. Unfortunately, he was becoming boring, telling the same anecdotes but beginning to lose his ability to recall the names of the central characters who made up those stories. “His sarcasm had lost its bite, and his epigrammatic expressions had become long-winded and shallow. He was never able to recall people’s names.” Mishima then introduces a wonderful paragraph describing in metaphorical terms the problems the good Baron seems to be having:
“His listener could not help but recognize Shinkawa’s losing battle with the invisible monster of forgetfulness. This quiet, but tenacious animal would occasionally withdraw only to reappear at once, clinging to Shinkawa, brushing his forehead with its shaggy tail.”
Believe me, I know that feeling. I have known it all my life. And the fact that I have difficulty in remembering names (and dates) has always plagued me. I am a terrible joke-teller since I often forget the punchline. But as I grow older (and older) and may finally experience dementia I find solace in the fact that the people around me will never know! (Which raises an interesting question: how would doctors ever determine that a Tea-Party Republican who suffers from chronic dementia has Alzheimer’s?) Anyway, I have always been like Baron Shinkawa and know well the feeling of the quiet animal “brushing his forehead with its tail.” I suppose, however, that if and when dementia does visit the “quiet but tenacious animal” will not withdraw. He becomes a permanent visitor. Sad, indeed.
One reads fine literature in order to deepen one’s understanding of the human condition. If the work is also beautifully written — even in translation — then this raises the work from the level of “good” literature to “great” literature. Such is the case with the novels of Yukio Mishima.