I had read another book of Yukuio Mishima, nobel-prize winning Japanese author, before I read the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Whether it was the translator, unlike the brilliantIvan Moris who translated this book, the subject matter, or a rapid development of Mishima's writing style, I was not very much impressed by Mishima's The Sound of Waves - which left me all the more impressed for The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. This brilliant, superbly and elegantly written story (based on the real event, with Mishima exploring the motivation) of the Japanese Buddhist priest who burned down the Temple of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto tells a haunting psychological story of the descent into evil which leads to the priest Mizoguchi being able to carry out his infamous act.
Japanese culture is always shrouded with mystery for Western audiences, alluring and intriguing, because it is simultaneously both superbly alien and yet also so recognizable. Perhaps this alienness is exaggerated at times as a foil for our own societies, the age old tendency to imagine that someone else is far more exotic and different than they are so that we can have someone to compare ourselves to - but the cultural differences between Japan and the West are often remarked upon by visitors who go in between the two. Books like the Temple of the Golden Pavilion offer an incredible snapshot into the mentality, the culture, the mindset of Japan, which for this alone would make it into a great book, if a provincial one to explore the culture of a single country. And since Japan is at once so similar and so different, something which applies elsewhere: the story of Mizoguchi can be transferred to today with such ease too, to places much closer to home. But it goes far beyond this, since the lessons apply to the entire world.
What is at its most fascinating with The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is the ability of Mishima to delve in on the mental anguish and the development of a flawed young man - of the victim complex which drives him steadily, inexorably, to his great act of terrorism, to the destruction of the temple. In the story of Mizoguchi, there is a universal, human story to understand and confront. Mizoguchi has the single, great, overriding element which cuts throughout the book - his stutter. The stutter, which separates him from the world, this barrier of incomprehension and clumsiness: Mishima is able to convey this sentiment of frustration as a key in an old rusty lock, the metaphor resting throughout in the mind as the root of Mizoguchi's woes and fall. For what is it if not this feeling of separation, abandonment, isolation, which could create men like Mizoguchi, who feel scorned by the world around them, and take their anger out upon it? It has only become more resonant today, in a world which is more and more defined by social atomization and isolation. Mizoguchi is doubly touching in that he simultaneously comes to hate and to love his great obsession, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which dominates his life and soul.
When one reads a novel, one is trained to want to like the main character. We tend to place ourselves into the shoes of the main character, we tend to think of ourselves like them, to become them - and thus we interpret their actions positively, just like we tend to interpret our actions positively, since we are rarely convinced that we ourselves are bad. Almost nobody is evil to themselves. It is refreshing to read Mishima's work and to be confronted with a main character who ultimately is indisputably the villain, which like Mizoguchi's stutter enforces a separation between us and him. But at the same time, the descent of Mizoguchi is slow enough, and his woes real enough, that he is understandable - he is always human, and never becomes a carricatural cut-out. Japanese literature is known for surpassing simple binaries of good or bad, and Mishima goes above and beyond here.
What friendships he does have are striking in their twisted and negative nature - they remind me somewhat of The Portrait of Dorian Gray with the relationship between Lord Henry and Dorian, which does so much to lead Dorian astray. Here, it is the hedonistic, and also physically deformed, Kashiwagi who does so much to further Mizoguchi's path to cynicism and destruction. Mishima's brilliance throughout is his ability to make Mizoguchi into an intensely human character, with both flaws and goodness, and one who we feel sympathy for, one who we can relate to even as we have to distance ourselves from him as his descent continues.
One cannot write of the Temple of the Golden Pavilion without mentioning the simple, elegant, beauty which accompanies every page. Japanese literature is famous for its minimalism, its preference for simplicity, its not-quite-spartan adornment, so different from say, Russian literature, just as equally famous for managing to sprawl across thousands of pages with florid and lengthy descriptions. Mishima's writing, brilliantly transferred by the translator, has a simple elegance which conveys his meaning and the wondrous beauty of his world, so shockingly trampled by his main character.
A thoroughly brilliant and superbly written book, one which ranks as a classic of the examination of the human soul.