Having spent some time in Japan with Uno Chiyo, I thought it would be nice to continue with my reading for the Japanese Literature Challenge, and as I featured in my start-of-the-year post, I did have a number of options – in particular two titles by the great Yukio Mishima. He’s another long-time favourite of mine, and I was so happy when previously untranslated works by him began to appear in English. I’ve recently read and enjoyed The Frolic of the Beasts and “Star (which appeared as an extra edition no. 51 in the Penguin Moderns set). Another new title, published in English in 2019, and originally in Japan in 1968, is “Life for Sale” and so after an interesting, but not sparkling, experience with Uno Chiyo, I thought the Mishima might be a little livelier. Boy, was I right…

“Life for Sale”, translated by Stephen Dodd, opens with our protagonist, Hanio Yamada, coming round from an attempted suicide. As he’s failed to end his life, he now regards the latter as expendable and so offers it as a commodity for sale to the highest bidder. Having placed an ad to this effect in a Tokyo newspaper, he’s unprepared for the madness he seems to have unleashed as one crazy event happens after the other. An old man who hisses between his false teeth appears, wanting Hanio to have a fling with the old man’s ex, so that mobsters will kill them both. This does not go to plan, however, and Hanio is then drawn into a complicated plot involving a rare library book. Then there’s the affair of the vampire woman, whose son ends up bonding with Hanio. And the coded messages for Countries A and B. Then the affair with the druggy heiress with a posh annexe house. All the time Hanio has the feeling that he’s being watched. And who *is* this mysterious organisation called the Asia Confidential Service? As Hanio staggers from one madcap event to another, he begins to wonder what his life really *is* worth…

It was a strange, bright afternoon. An afternoon in which something gigantic had been misplaced, a spring afternoon that felt empty and full of light.

Well, “Life for Sale” is a hell of a read! The narrative itself is a rollercoaster of crazy happenings; I hesitate to use the word madcap for a book which actually explores quite dark material, but there *is* the feel of an old Hollywood screwball comedy at times, mixed with some of the violence and insanity of something like Dashiell Hammett’s “Red Harvest.” Hanio rattles from one adventure to another, all the while wondering what the point of anything is. It’s worth remembering that this book was published only two years before Mishima’s attempted political coup and ritual suicide, and certainly death seems to have been much on his mind. Also shining through is his contempt for modern Japanese culture and his hankering for the old ways. A telling part of the book for me was when Hanio encounters the heiress’s parents, who are content with their tranquil lifestyle, happy to wait for their death to come naturally. It’s rather chilling to comtemplate how the book kind of reflects his fatalistic frame of mind and lack of connection with life in the 1960s.

There he had been, putting all his effort into hurrying towards death. But here were a husband and wife in no hurry to die. A scattering of cherry-blossom petals, blown on the wind, lay in the garden. In the pleasant midday cool of a shaded room, the old man’s white hand turned the pages of his Tang poetry book. These people were taking all the time in the world to weave together their own deaths, calmly, as if quietly knitting sweaters in preparation for the coming winter. Where did such tranquility come from?

So Hanio expresses contempt for the modern hippie lifestyle, but is equally repelled by the concept of settling down to a ‘normal’ domestic life with the heiress. He’s a man constantly on the run, sometimes unsure it seems about what he’s running from, and it’s only when he realises that other forces are manipulating that his life starts to take on some value in his eyes – at least to the extent that if he is to die, he wants to control how this happens.

Via Wikimedia Commons – see here for attribution: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yukio_Mishima_01.jpg

“Life…” was an absolutely fascinating and quite thought-provoking read, one I think I will have to go back to at some point and read again, to pick up the underlying nuances as I must confess I raced through the book to find out what would happen to Hanio. I really can’t understand why the book hasn’t been translated before; I know I’ve seen others mention that the new works to appear in English are minor works but “Life…” definitely seems to be have a lot more depth than you might think. Although styled like a pulp narrative, the underlying existentialist themes linger in the mind and end making the reader (at least this one!) wonder about the price of a life and whether we should strive for a steady, productive life or go all out for hedonism!

Mishima published his “Sea of Fertility” series, generally reckoned to be his finest work, during the 1960s and superficially this is a different beast from those books. But it seems to me that Mishima is always exploring the point of existence and although “Life…” looks at the topic in an ostensibly lighter way, I would argue that it’s by no means a minor work. I absolutely loved the book, and it’s definitely going to stay with me – a real winner for the Japanese Literature Challenge, and a really strong incentive to read more of the great man’s work! 😀