The Setting Sun by Osamu Dazai
Translated by Donald Keene
One of the joys of this reading week has been the fact that so far it’s taken me to some very far flung places! “The Labours of Hercules” took Poirot all over the world; “The Plague” was set in French Algeria; “A Girl in Winter” looked at England before and during WW”; and now I’m off to post-War Japan with Osamu Dazai’s work, “The Setting Sun”.
Dazai (June 19, 1909 – June 13, 1948) was an enigmatic figure whose early suicide (after several attempts) turned him into a cult in Japan. “The Setting Sun” was one of his last works, and it’s set immediately after WW2 – which of course saw a crushing defeat for Japan. This loss is referred to throughout the book, and the story is one of decay – of the old way of Japanese life, of the old regime, of the old morality and specifically of the aristocracy. The book is narrated by Kazuko, daughter of noble family who have fallen on hard times. The father is dead, the brother Naoji missing, and Kazuko and her mother (always referred to as being ‘a lady’) scrape a living. The family home has been sold and they’ve moved to a small dwelling in the country. But despite constant sales of clothes and jewels, the family barely get by, and the situation is not improved by the return of the prodigal son. Naoji himself is in decline, being a recovering drug addict and pretty much an alcoholic.
But Kazuko is no blushing flower, and has her own history of a broken marriage and a stillborn child, as well as dalliances with artistic friends of her brothers. And as her mother and brother continue to decline, Kazuko is drawn to change and a need to live.
The older and wiser heads of the world have always described revolution and love to us as the two most foolish and loathsome human activities. Before the war, even during the war, we were convinced of it. Since the defeat, however, we no longer trust the older and wiser heads and have to come to feel that the opposite of what they say is the real truth about life. Revolution and love are in fact the best, most pleasurable things in the world, and we realise it is precisely because they are so good that the older and wiser heads have spitefully fobbed us off on their sour grapes of a lie. This I want to believe implicitly: Man was born for love and revolution.
Her answer to her emotional dilemma is to throw herself at Mr Uehara, author friend of her brother’s, and frankly not much of a catch from the description here. She wanders round Tokyo looking for him, shamelessly caring nothing of the fact that he has a wife, a child and numerous lovers. Her encounter with him will decide her future, but what a broken future that is…
“The Setting Sun” was an unusual, sometimes fragmentary book, but absolutely fascinating. It’s chock full of symbolism, which of course refers to the so called “Land of the Rising Sun” being in decline, and there is a recurring motif of snakes. These turn up regularly, usually as a portent of death and at one point Kazuko burns some snake eggs which she feels brings on a kind of curse. Fire is a theme too, with the eggs, and with Kazuko almost setting fire to the house and consequently the whole village.
Kazuko herself is a complex character; Dazai’s books are often described as semiautobiographical and I did find myself wondering if her behaviour was typical of women of that era. She drinks, runs around Tokyo in pursuit of men and often seems to have little regard of what people think about her. But the more I thought about it, the more I understood that she was also symbolic. It seems to me that Kazuko and Naoji represent the reality of the aristocracy; on the surface very powerful and revered but underneath actually corrupt and dissolute.
Dazai’s style is also of interest; he has a very distinctive way of structuring his chapters, with what is almost the climax of the action at the start which he then works his way towards during the rest of that chapter. It makes for stimulating, if unusual, reading. As for the subject matter, I imagine that a scholar of Japanese life and culture would sense even more symbols and references in the book than I did; nevertheless, I did enjoy “The Setting Sun” immensely. It’s a book I think I admire and like, rather than love, and I put that down to a certain detachment in the storytelling. Kazuko herself was a character I struggled with in places; it’s hard sometimes to sympathise with her melodramatic monologues and although I understand she’s meant to be a woman caught in a changing society, trapped between ancient and modern, I didn’t feel she was necessarily rounded enough.
Despite that caveat, the glimpse of post-War Japan presented here was fascinating, and I’ll be interested to read his other cult classic “No Longer Human”, which I have lurking on Mount TBR. The 1947 Club is certainly throwing up some intriguing books and stay tuned to find out which counry I’ll end up visiting for my last reads of the week!