Twelve years ago today the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima ended his life. The death of his choosing was hara-kiri, followed by ritual decapitation at the hands of a follower.
A week ago, on the last shelf of a discount bookstore in Maryland, a reader took down a paperback. It was an early book by Yukio Mishima called "The Sound of Waves."
Vaguely he remembered the author's grisly ending. Before allowing himself to be beheaded, Mishima had made a five-inch incision in his abdomen. The doctors who examined the body agreed that such a long slash, deep enough to let the intestines out, indicated a great resolve.
In this way, for less than a dollar, a reader discovered Mishima through a pretty and innocent story, but one that is profoundly different from the final volume of his work, completed on the morning of his death.
Uta-Jima -- Song Island -- has only about fourteen hundred inhabitants and a coastline of something under three miles.
It was afternoon and the sinking sun had been cut off by Mt. Higashi, throwing the vicinity of the lighthouse into shadow. A hawk was circling in the bright sky over the sea. High in the heavens, the hawk was dipping now one wing and then the other, as though testing them, and, just when it seemed about to plummet downward, instead it suddenly slipped backward on the air, and then soared upward again on motionless wings.
That is the way "The Sound of Waves" begins. It was published in 1954, when Mishima was 29. It is the story of Shinji, a quiet young fisherman, and the lovely Hatsue, an adolescent pearl diver, and how they fall in love on Song Island and their struggle to overcome the island gossip that has forestalled their marriage. It is a simple story, with no blood in it.
Writers and readers, books and book buyers, go down a path together that neither has seen before. The best authors do not imagine an audience, but rather a universe; and perhaps the best reader is one who opens a book unprepared for it by notoriety, but with a pleasant sense of possibility and a moderately comfortable chair.
"The Sound of Waves" has been obscure enough. It was on the shelf on the Horizon Bookshop in Annapolis not because it had been ordered, but by the luck of the draw in a shipment of odd lots--books damaged, remaindered or left over--from a warehouse in Virginia.
If its author was the most popular contemporary novelist in postwar Japan, if indeed "The Sound of Waves" has been twice filmed there, this was not widely known in Annapolis, or by 1982 in many other American cities.
Their cheeks came so close they were almost touching. They could plainly smell each other--it was a fragrance like that of salt water. They could feel each other's warmth.
Their dry, chapped lips touched. There was a slight taste of salt.
"It's like seaweed," Shinji thought.
Then the moment was past. The boy moved away and stood up, propelled by a feeling of guilt at this first experience in his life.
"Tomorrow I'm going to take some fish to the lighthouse-keeper's place when I come back from fishing." Still looking out to sea, Shinji had now recovered his dignity and could make this declaration in a manly voice.
"I'm going there too tomorrow afternoon," the girl replied, likewise looking out to sea.
"The book certainly is not remaindered," said Sam Mitnik, the publisher of Perigee Books. "I don't know how you found a copy for 99 cents, that shouldn't be happening. To the contrary, this is really a case of a lost book found."
Mitnik describes himself as an "ex-academic," a former teacher of contemporary literature whose admiration for Japanese fiction "is the kind of thing you sometimes have to hide in this business." One of Perigee's current moneymakers is the "E.T. Calendar," and the company also prints those paper construction kits from which to make a model of the Washington Monument or the U.S. Capitol, as well as Abby Hoffman's "Soon to be a Major Motion Picture."
"Mishima could sell 8 million copies in Japan, but the hardcovers here only did nominally well," he explained. "About two and a half years ago I realized that some of the most wonderful literature in the world was out of print here." So, to bring them back, Mitnik started the Perigee Japanese Library.
"We began with 14 books, of which "The Sound of Waves" was one. I was outraged that an incredible sensibility was being lost to us, but I felt strongly also that it could be profitable.
The Perigee Japanese Library now numbers 32 books. Each of the original 14, he says, have gone into extra printings.
"The Sound of Waves" is now widely available in full-service bookstores at its list price. By last week it had sold 11,000 copies, and Mitnik had put in an order for a third printing of 5,000 more.
To him, the appearance of "The Sound of Waves" on a bookstore shelf is not accident or luck or an irony of fate but the result of "the most profitable self-indulgence I'ver ever been allowed."
The Mother took a very tolerant view of young people's amorous affairs. And even during the diving season, when everyone stood about the drying-fire gossiping, she held her tongue. But when it came to her own son's affair that was the subject of malicious gossip, then there was a motherly duty that she would have to perform.
That night, after Hiroshi was asleep, the mother leaned close to Shinji's ear and spoke in a low, firm voice:
"Do you know people are spreading bad stories about you and Hatsue?"
Shinji shook his head and blushed. His mother too was embarrassed, but she pressed the point with unwavering frankness.
"Did you sleep with her?"
Again Shinji shook his head.
"Then you've not done a thing that people could talk about? Are you telling me the truth?"
"Yes, I've told you the truth."
"All right, then there's nothing for me to say. But do be careful -- people are always minding other people's business."
But the situation did not take a turn for the better. The following evening Shinji's mother went to a meeting of the Ape-god Society, the women's one and only club, and, the moment she appeared, everyone stopped talking, looking as though they had just had a wet blanket thrown over them. Obviously they had been gossiping.
Despite the difficulties of translation, which sometimes throw a wet blanket on idiomatic subtlety, the purity and naturalness of Mishima's characters come clear in "The Sound of Waves."
What is not at all clear, or even foreshadowed, is what Mishima's idea of purity and naturalness would later turn out to be. Not that America was likely to find out without reading his books, but there was a wide hint in 1976, when a macabre British film came out called "The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea." In it, Kris Kristofferson, a sailor, goes to bed with Sarah Miles, and is seen by her son. Kristofferson is the victim of a ritual murder by six schoolboys, who cut him into pieces. The novel, relocated from Japan to England for the film, was by Yukio Mishima.
He had talent and ambition and fame, and his crowning work was a four-book cycle of novels called "The Sea of Fertility" composed of "Spring Snow," "Runaway Horse," "The Temple of Dawn" and "The Decay of the Angel."
On the morning of Nov. 25, 1970, the day he completed "The Decay of the Angel," he confronted a Japanese general with a demand his nation take up again the code of the warrior, arm itself and restore the samurai code.
This was not the Mishima of "The Sound of the Waves," but a very different man, the leader of an 80-man private army called the Society of Swords. He was a homosexual, a narcissist, a cultist of body-building. He deplored what he considered the loss of the "samurai spirit" in modern Japan. He wrote plays about Hitler and de Sade and was fascinated by the image of St. Sebastian's arrow-pierced body, so much so that it figures prominently as a masturbatory object in his first major novel, "Confessions of a Mask."
In the end, he was very far down the path he had begun with "The Sound of Waves." His death, it was pointed out by literary critics, was nearly identical to the hara-kiri scene which ends "Runaway Horses." On Sept. 14, 1970, he had told a Japanese reporter: "Frankly, I feel I am finished now. I have done plays, long novels, everything . . . Beauty is short-lived, and it is very difficult to sustain the creation of beauty indefinitely."
All of this came out after his spectacular suicide.
Angela Carter, a novelist living in Japan, wrote that Mishima suffered from "a poorly developed notion of the ludicrous." Most of his novels translated into English, she said, "exude a monstrous and compulsive weirdness, and seem to take place in a kind of purgatory for the depraved."
Once again it came to pass that Shinji, little given to thinking as he was, was lost in thought. He was thinking that in spite of all they'd been through, here they were in the end, free within the moral code to which they had been born, never once having been estranged from the province of the gods . . . that, in short, it was this little island, enfolded in darkness, that had protected their happiness and brought their love to this fulfillment . . .
Suddenly Hatsue turned to Shinji and laughed. From her sleeve she took out a small, pink shell and showed it to him.
To have only read "The Sound of Waves" is to stop at the beginning. The rest of Mishima's books--and he must have seen this clearly--remain like a dare thrown by the dead.
The reader takes them up at his peril.
The lieutenant who beheaded Mishima 12 years ago today was himself next in turn. But when doctors examined his abdomen, they found his hara-kiri wound to be only three inches long, and hardly deep enough to draw blood.
Nevertheless, another swordsman instantly chopped off his head.