Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Natsume Soseki and World Literature

A few of my comments on the position of the great Japanese writer Natsume Soseki in world literature appeared in yesterday's English language version of the Asahi Shinbun. The translation of the original article (which appeared in Japanese in the Asahi in July) is slightly clunky to say the least and quite weird to find myself coming out with phrases like 'Soseki makes readers think about the credibility of the stories and analyze oddball psychology'...Now I understand how others must feel when the English translation of their words comes out very strangely indeed.


Monday, 29 September 2014

The Great Panda vs. Big Charlie

As we hold our collective breath to see whether restraint will rule the day in the face of the heroic student protests for democracy in Hong Kong, I note the predictable clamp down on information by the censors in Beijing. On social media, euphemisms are deployed: the big question is how will the Great Panda react?

In its state censorship and propaganda China shows alarming signs of similarity with Tokyo in the 1930s. In the early Showa period, the Japanese emperor Hirohito was a figure so divine that the eyes of onlookers had to be firmly cast down to the ground when his celestial majesty passed by. One dare not speak a word of criticism against him and to do so in public or private was to put one's liberty in peril. But the foreign correspondents in Tokyo had a neat trick up their sleeve - Hirohito became known as 'Big Charlie' and about 'Big Charlie' you could say pretty much anything you pleased.

It's incredibly important I think that The Great Panda knows that the eyes of the world are upon him and that his attempts at repressing information will not - can not - work.

If the regime moves to deploying the army against the students, then it is an entirely different matter. The police are the instrument of internal civilian order; the army are the means by which a regime defends itself and attacks others. If the army are deployed, then it is entirely legitimate for the international community to become engaged also. I'm pleased by the statements from around the world calling on restraint from Beijing and condemning excessive force against pro-democracy campaigners.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Scotland and the Union

Now that the dust is beginning to settle on the extraordinary Scottish Referendum, I am taking stock of what exactly went on over the last few weeks.

There seems a supreme irony that this all occurred in the year when we have been commemorating the centennial anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. Oh, how we marvelled at the folly of our ancestors as they sleep-walked their way over the course of a balmy summer into absolute disaster.

While we were all reading such articles, Britain nearly sleep-walked into oblivion. When on Friday of last week I got up at 2.30am to watch the referendum results come in, I seriously wondered whether the country would still be around in four hours time. What the Germans didn't manage in 1914, the British Government made a much better attempt at in 2014.

Rarely can a government have made a bigger shambles of a referendum than the UK's coalition managed over Scotland. Just about every aspect of the referendum had been weighted in favour of the Scottish National Party (SNP) by David Cameron's deplorable lack of negotiation skills over the Edinburgh Memorandum which defined the terms of the referendum. Assuming that there should have ever been an all-defining referendum over independence in the first place (the SNP had never achieved a majority of votes in Scotland), all the terms of the referendum turned out to be to the SNP's advantage.

Most savvy children know that a question is best phrased to elicit a 'yes' response and that the phrasing of a question radically alters the likely response. If there was going to be a referendum, then the question should have been, 'Should Scotland stay in the UK?' Agreeing to a referendum question of 'Should Scotland be an independent country?' was a bit like asking a disgruntled partner 'Do you wish to be free?' rather than 'Do you wish to keep hold of what we have?' It was a fundamental tactical failure of the British government to ever agree to this.

As if that wasn't bad enough, the British government then agreed to having 16 and 17 year-olds vote in the referendum, who were intrinsically less likely to feel long-standing ties of affection for the Union. They agreed to the 800,000 Scots living in other parts of the UK - and thus most likely to keenly feel both Scottish and British - to having no say in the referendum. If this was a battle, it was like handing your opponent all the high ground and sending home your best divisions before a single shot had been fired.

Behind these disastrous decisions was of course a vaunting over-confidence that the outcome would a be clear backing for the Union no matter what the terms of the debate. The British government were not so much sleep-walking as they had been in 1914, but were sound asleep and snoring heavily.

Then the campaigns began. It was painful to watch. The SNP, once a fringe party who had turned off voters with virulently anti-English rhetoric, had long since worked out that the way forward was not to attack 'the English' but 'Westminster politics'. Their greatest coup was arguing, preposterously, that in nationalist hands Scotland would be a land of 'social justice' (yeh, right).

Such an opponent should have been routed comprehensively with a broad, inspirational vision of what it means to be British, but instead the 'No' campaign could only muster an utterly vision-less Alistair Darling, whose sole thrust of argument was to warn of economic turmoil and the difficulties of settling on a currency after separation. Cameron, having set in place the disastrous terms of the referendum, was then terrified to hardly set foot in Scotland lest his Old Etonian ways turned off the natives. The leader of the 'Yes' campaign, Alex Salmond (pictured right in Scottish Govt. image) rang rings round both of them, proving himself in strategy and bearing by far the most able political operator in Britain.

The UK's head of state was unable to make any comment as the imminent disappearance of UK apparently had nothing to do with her (could someone remind me what her purpose is again?) , though we later learned that she 'purred' with happiness at the result.

Many people in the media now tell us that the referendum was a wonderful exercise in democracy in action because of mass participation, with voting in some areas at nearly 90%, though there has been the rather unfortunate consequence of a constitutional crisis precipitated by the desperate promise of maximum devolution powers to Scotland in a last ditch effort by the No campaign to sway the vote.

Cameron was overheard saying to Michael Bloomberg that the referendum should have never been so close. Indeed it shouldn't. If it hadn't been for the government's sheer incompetence, the result is likely to have come in at least 70-30 in the favour of the Union and without the constitutional mess Cameron has now engendered.

I too found the referendum inspirational though for different reasons to those widely reported. Firstly, it revealed the ways in which many issues when put to the vote can move in directions radically different to those which pollsters initially suggest (Think Britain can never become a republic? Let's put it to a referendum, I say). Secondly, it showed the government and the opposition to be so staggeringly inept, visionless and bungling that it underlined the importance of each individual becoming politically active. If a government can take a country to within a few hours of not even existing, you really can't afford to close your eyes and let them lead you as they sleep-walk their way into disaster.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Everything about Mishima

My new book Yukio Mishima came out this week so I thought I might give my blog readers an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of where the book came from and what it's all about.

For anyone not familiar with the name today, Yukio Mishima was arguably the most internationally famous Japanese celebrity of the last century. A dazzlingly prolific author who wrote over 30 novels, 70 plays and seemingly countless volumes of short stories, memoirs and essays, he also found time to be a movie actor, martial arts devotee, body builder, political campaigner and world traveller. He also conducted an orchestra, flew a F104 jet and formed his own private army. He was described by Yasunari Kawabata, the first Japanese winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, as the kind of genius who comes along every 300 years. In Japan his tentacles of personal association spanned from the prime minister to business leaders to film directors and taxi drivers. On his world travels, he hung out with Christopher Isherwood, Greta Garbo, Margot Fonteyn and Jean Cocteau amongst many others. When he died in Tokyo at the age of 45 in the most spectacular death imaginable on November 25 1970, the entire Japanese nation came to a standstill. In that never-to-be-forgotten JFK moment, every Japanese over the age of 10 at the time still remembers exactly where they were when they heard the astonishing news that Mishima with a handful of cadres had taken hostage a general at the Eastern Headquarters of the Japanese Self Defence Forces, appeared on a balcony to give a frenzied speech to the army, been shouted down and subsequently committed ritual suicide. No man ever lived out a life in more dramatic fashion.

Mishima was also the first Japanese writer I ever read. At the age of 16, I was passed by a schoolteacher his novella The Sailor Who Fell From Grace From The Sea (translated by John Nathan, of whom more below). Later at the age of 19 I was reading his Confessions of a Mask, a copy of which rested on my university desk with a cover depicting Mishima in a typically sado-masochistic pose (prompting a startled visitor to note my 'esoteric tastes'). By the time I was 20 and hitchhiking around the island of Shikoku in 1990, I was asked at a youth hostel who were the most famous Japanese people in Britain. 'Yukio Mishima', I instantly responded. I might have added that, at the time, this was pretty much the only Japanese person anyone in Britain had heard of thanks to his positioning as an unlikely counter cultural college room poster boy.

From the above, you might imagine that I have long been a Mishima devotee, but actually I was ambivalent about Mishima. There was no denying his literary talent, but the bulging muscles, the triumphing of Japanese traditions, the whole samurai shtick combined with the right wing politics were simply not for me. At his worst, Mishima seemed to embody just about every cliche of Japan. So I placed him at a respectful distance and quietly shook my head at those, like the great Japanologist Donald Keene, who seemed to think that he was the best modern writer Japan had to offer.

But then I was asked if I wouldn' t like to pen a new take on Mishima? Yes, yes, would love to write the book, but did it have to be on Mishima...couldn't we do someone else? No, it had to be Mishima.

Once, at a dinner in Cambridge back in 1999, my old college mucker Andrew Rankin informed me that he was writing a biography of Mishima and ever afterwards I always kept an eye out for the appearance of his mighty tome on Mishima. Though Andrew has gone to produce books on a variety of other subjects, such as his book on seppuku (ritual suicide) with Mishimaesque connections, his definitive word on Mishima has not yet appeared.

But gradually, semi-reluctantly I was drawn into research on the subject. The first task was to read as much of the Mishima canon as possible (his complete works comprise some 42 volumes each of which are around 7-800 pages long). Where to start? For me, what transformed my understanding of Mishima was reading his final tetralogy The Sea of Fertility, his self-declared 'life work' which took over five years to write and quite literally killed him. (Mishima committed suicide on the same day as the final installment was handed to his editor, having declared that he could not imagine any life after this book was finished). Reading this book changed my entire view of Mishima and made me convinced that he had been largely misunderstood.
So baffling has The Sea of Fertility been to critics that they either tend to mostly ignore it and claim that early works such as Confessions of a Mask were Mishima's finest achievement, or else they tend to force analogies between the contents of The Sea of Fertility and the playing out of Mishima's own life. Specifically, the suicide of a young nationalist at the end of volume two is nearly always dovetailed (as at the end of Paul Schrader's otherwise superb film Mishima: A life in Four Chapters, pictured right) with Mishima's own demise. But if this was really the meaning of his 'life work', why did he write another two volumes?

Although he was most famous for his posturing dandyism, nationalism and kinky homosexuality (though he was also married with kids), I began to realise there was an entirely different Mishima with profound ideas on the nature of existence. This was the man I wanted to explore.

When turning to existing biographies of Mishima, we really are spoilt for choice. In 1974, four years after Mishimas death, two comprehensive biographies of Mishima appeared in English and both have fascinating backstories. The first of them was by Mishima's erstwhile translator John Nathan. Well over 6 foot tall and standing nearly a foot taller than Mishima himself, Nathan was not just any translator, but a brilliantly talented and fresh-faced American - in fact the first American graduate of Tokyo University - whose translation of The Sailor Who Fell From Grace From The Sea won such high praise from its American publishers Knopf that Mishima believed that in this young man he had found the means by which he would capture Japan's first Nobel Prize. He pumped weights with Nathan, invited him to his house parties and hearing of Knopf's high praise for him, invited him out to the Ginza so they could chink sake cups together and raise toasts to the great task of winning the Nobel Prize.

If Shakespeare was alive today he would undoubtedly pen a play called Mishima and this scene with Nathan would be a crucial moment in Act 2. (In Julius Caesar fashion, I fantasise that Mishima would die not in Act 5, but in Act 3 and the rest of the play would be taken up with Mishima's legacy and ghost). Shortly after the toasts to the Nobel Prize, Nathan had to awkwardly declare that he did not want to translate Mishima's next novel, which he thought untranslatable, and wished rather to switch his services to Mishima's great rival Kenzaburo Oe instead. Mishima never spoke to him again. It was this moment which set Mishima on an inexorable path to death five years later: it also set Oe on the path to the Nobel Prize which he claimed in 1994 with Nathan at his side.

Nathan's subsequent biography of Mishima, complete with interview material with Mishima's own parents, is an extraordinary piece of research which was translated into Japanese before being suppressed by Mishima's widow and only finally released after her death.

An equally fascinating biography was also provided in 1974 by Henry Scott Stokes, a journalist at the Japan Bureau of the London Times. Mishima had befriended Scott Stokes in the last years of his life, had stayed with Mishima at his holiday retreat during Mishima's final summer and actually rushed to the base on the day of Mishima's death.

Biographies and memoirs of Mishima in Japanese are of course legion, but special mention might be made to the biography published by the recent governor of Tokyo, Naoki Inose, which delved in particular into Mishima's intriguing family history (Mishima's grandfather was governor of the Japanese province of Karafuto (modern day Sakhalin) and was tipped for a cabinet post before scandal engulfed him). Two years ago a much expanded version of this book prepared in cooperation with Hiroaki Sato, a notable Mishima scholar and translator based in New York, appeared in English. Persona runs to some 850 pages and is exhaustively comprehensive. After reading Inose's Japanese original, I read the English version of Persona twice: it is a quite terrific work of scholarship.

In the illustrious company of men who personally knew Mishima and ate and drank with him, or in the face of colossal biographies by authors who have devoted half a lifetime in scholarship on the subject, what can my book hope to achieve? I'm hoping it might serve firstly as an up-to-date introduction to one of the most extraordinary lives of the twentieth century, but I'm also hoping it will reveal Mishima's obsessive, incisive ideas about the nature of the world itself. I have paid particular attention to Mishima's masterwork, The Sea of Fertility, and hope my dose of literary criticism will encourage a re-evaluation of this tremendous tome, Mishima deserves to be remembered and appreciated for his writing, and not just for his spectacular death.

For me personally, having arrived at Mishima a little late and sceptical, I must declare that this book is but the first of a trilogy of interconnected books on Mishima. How the other books will take up the theme is a subject to which I shall return. Watch this space.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The Mahdi and the Islamic State

I've been watching over the last couple of evenings the 1966 flick Khartoum about the Mahdi Rebellion in Sudan in the early 1880s. The film has some small interest in cinema history - famously Charlton Heston was supposed to have taken the role of General Gordon because Laurence Olivier was playing the Mahdi though they actually only share two scenes together. It also boasts a nice turn from Ralph Richardson as a hesitantly conniving Gladstone. It's not exactly cinema gold (although there is an intermission and 'entr'acte') and while there are moments where a blacked-up Olivier's performance as the Mahdi reminds you of his wonderfully stylized Othello, there are also quite a few when he seems more like Bernard Bresslaw out of Carry On Up The Khyber.

It's intriguing though how many similarities there are between the current crisis created by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria with what was going on in Sudan in the 1880s. Then, as now, the creation of such a radical Islamic State committed to sharia law took the West entirely off guard. The Mahdi crushed an Egyptian army of 10,000 men under Western leadership sent to quell his uprising and subsequently, armed with their abandoned weapons, proved unstoppable in his determination to take over the whole of Sudan, beheading all those, such as General Gordon himself, who stood in his way. Sound familiar? This was in a country where Britain felt it had already made some civilizing contribution with Gordon rooting out the slave trade when he had been governor in the 1870s.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the story is the pitting against each other of two extraordinary individuals: the fascinating General Gordon and the Mahdi. Gordon (pictured right)
too was a self-possessed religious zealot with an incredible life story already in place. As 'Chinese Gordon' he had been instrumental in putting down the Taiping Rebellion in 1860s China. In one intriguing, entirely fabricated scene in the film he even offers the Mahdi a sumptuous jacket presented to him by the Emperor of China only for it to be turned down by the Mahdi as the emperor is 'an infidel'.

The curious Western habit of sending out 'men of faith' to tackle religious fanaticism in the Near East seems to continue to this day. The modern equivalent of General Gordon is surely a man like Tony Blair, another self-possessed religious 'visionary', dispatched to the region and, blithely oblivious to the contradictions of his faith and those of the peoples around him, achieves nothing at all, though as the script of Khartoum acutely points out 'vanity was always mixed up with visions'.

Much as I might briefly enjoy the idea of a Blair of Baghdad being holed up with the armies of the Islamic State swirling around him, the grimmer reality is that these days the victims of such blood-thirsty rebellions are those deeply humane and humanistic souls attempting to alleviate, or report on, the distress of the local population. One of the saddest aspects of the horrifying images of the two American journalists killed was learning what profound lovers of Arabic culture they were.

In the 1880s, as now, the initial response to the Islamic State was to avoid military intervention or at least for military intervention to be surreptitious. It took the stranding of Gordon in Khartoum, and his inability to be saved from a grisly death, to galvanize public opinion.

What lessons can be drawn? In Khartoum, Laurence Olivier as the Mahdi grits his teeth and pronounces 'holy war' as if he is talking about some archaic concept from a long time ago destined never to return. The producers in 1966 surely never dreamed how big 'jihad' would be in 2014. 'Jihad' it seems is clearly not going to go away and is likely to periodically explode.

The best we can do I think is not, in the mould of Gordon and the Mahdi, to match intense faith with intense faith, but rather match frenzied religion against a dogged, open-minded secularism that refuses to be displaced.