So, this book has been sitting on my shelf for a stupidly long time. And I told myself I would actually read everything that has been lying around before I go wasting my money on new books. Which is sorely tempting, but I’m down to the last few on the shelf. I can do it! Also, I’m supposed to be studying right now – this is much more fun.
When our young narrator visits the Golden Temple with his father, a Buddhist priest, he is overwhelmed by its beauty, and spends many years of his life obsessing over it. Himself an acolyte (trainee priest), he moves to study at the Golden Temple after his father dies, and is expected to become the successor of the current temple leader. Life, however, gets in the way, and the young man instead finds himself obsessing over ideas of beauty and life, all of which will have a greater impact than anyone could imagine.
It’s a little hard to review this on the points on which people usually review novels. This book is just one big philosophical character study, and how philosophy gets in the way of real life. Or that’s what I got out of it anyway. The narrator, Mizoguchi, spends so much time thinking about the innateness (or otherwise) of beauty, he has no time to actually think for himself. He is just swayed by people around him and, to be totally honest, strikes me as a bit of a wet blanket. His inability to think for himself is clearly delineated with his relationship with two characters – Tsurukawa and Kashiwagi. While Tsurukawa is his childhood friend, the one with whom he has a little fun, and doesn’t muse too heavily on the big things, once he gets to university, Mizoguchi’s friendship with Kashiwagi, a bitter, twisted young man with clubfeet, turns him into what he eventually becomes – a criminal. Kashiwagi’s manipulative and twisted ways of getting people to do things for him are perhaps code for the liberal movement in Japan – Mishima was certainly not particularly liberal in any of his views.
So, do I judge it on the philosophy, then? Probably not – more because I’m not in any position to judge any kind of philosophy. Most of it makes me fall asleep, and I’m going to be honest here, I did get very bored every time Kashiwagi opened his mouth to make some sweeping statement about the philosophy of life and beauty, which lasted several pages. To be fair, though, some of the ideas about beauty, and the insane logic that Mizoguchi uses to get to his final position, is pretty interesting, and as backstory for the inner machinations of one character, it works really well. Which, I suppose, in the end, it what this book is really about.
Mishima based this novel on an event that actually occured in 1950 – someone did, in fact, go and burn down Kinkaku-ji. Though, it has been rebuilt today. And I guess that’s what Mishima was trying to do – work out for himself, as well as everyone else, why on earth anyone would even consider burning down this vital part of Japanese history and culture. He succeeds on this front, and provides an interesting profile of someone who clearly thinks too much, and uses this weird logic to get to a stage that most people wouldn’t even dream of. It does feel like some kind of biography, as though someone is writing this cathartic confession of why they did what they did. As a novel, though, it tends to drag – though, oddly enough, the middle is where it picks up, and the second half is much better – and the plot is a bit tacked on. I would read Mishima again, so that’s something, I suppose.