A Review of “After the Banquet” by Yukio Mishima

Yukio_MishimaEven though Yukio Mishima was known to me as a great writer, I am ashamed to say that I had never read any of his books.   The only thing I knew about him – the strange and gruesome manner of his death by Seppuku, or ritual disembowelment, the way of the Japanese warrior – had always painted him in my mental landscape in surreal tones.  After the Banquet is the first book by him that I am reading – now that I have read it, I am planning to read many more.

I had expected something of the dreamy imagery of Kawabata or the mythical magnificence of Ryanosuke Akutagawa in Mishima’s writing: in fact, I was under the false impression that all Japanese writers wrote like this.  I could not have been more mistaken.  Because Mishima is very down to earth (even though the metaphor is there), and he writes of the most unromantic thing there is – politics.  Strangely, he manages to weave a love story into this world!

Politics meant pretending to step out to the men’s room and then completely disappearing, forcing a man’s back to the wall while cheerfully sharing the same fire, making a show of laughter when one is angry or flying into a rage when one is not in the least upset, sitting for a long time without saying a word, quietly flicking specks of dust off one’s sleeve… in short, acting very much like a geisha.

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This is the world Kazu, the redoubtable middle-aged female protagonist of this novel enters when she falls hopelessly in love with Yuken Noguchi, idealist politician of the Radical Party. The problem is, Noguchi cannot see practical politics for what it is: a form of ideological prostitution. Kazu who has come up in the world the hard way bears no illusions – Noguchi, for all his bookish wisdom, has a lot of them.

Kazu is the proprietor of a Setsugoan, an After-Snow-Retreat, where she is in the habit of entertaining the high-and-the-mighty of Japan. One day after a banquet, Tamaki, former ambassador to Germany, collapses in the toilet. The subsequent hullabaloo manages to throw Noguchi and Kazu together, and this gentleman of sixty and woman of fifty find themselves falling head-over-heels in love like teenagers.

They become man and wife, and soon afterwards, Noguchi is chosen to run for office by the Radical Party. What is essentially an ideological fight for him, however, is just a fight for victory for his wife. Her methods which are not wholly fair and aboveboard invite Noguchi’s wrath and their relationship soon begins to crack. And soon, Caesar’s wife is attacked: then events proceed at a pace which nobody can control.
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The novel is a masterful study of essential human nature in the dirtiest arena available in the modern world – democratic politics. Kazu, though she is ruthless in her efforts to get Noguchi to win, is essentially honest about herself: there is no self-deception. Her love is unconditional. Noguchi, on the other hand, is cold and callous about Kazu even though he is the epitome of political honesty and idealism. And society stands exposed as the most morally corrupt there is, where it cannot see the essential honesty of Kazu and must judge her by bogus moral standards.

Mishima seamlessly interweaves the physical background into the psychological landscape of his characters: thus Kazu’s well-kept garden in the Setsugoan becomes her symbol, metamorphosing and changing shape in tune with the development of her character. In contrast, Noguchi’s home is cheerless and stifling, permeated by the spirit of the ponderous tomes of serious literature in foreign languages that Kazu cannot understand. Similarly, Kazu’s wardrobe is elaborate and lovingly described (especially the patterns on her kimono) whereas Noguchi wears shabby western attire most of the time.

(I am once again captivated by the pictorial use of language by Japanese authors. This is also evident in the use of camera frames resembling paintings in Japanese movies – Ran by Kurasowa, for example.)

The most engaging character is Yamazaki, Noguchi’s Man Friday and genuine friend of Kazu (perhaps the only person who accepts her as she is). He can see politics for what it actually is.

Corruption in an election or the victory of moneyed power did not in the least surprise him; they seemed as natural as stones and horse dung along a road.

Rem acu tetigisti, as Jeeves would say.

At the end of the novel, we meet a chastened Kazu after the lavish banquet of an electoral battle, ready for life’s banquet. One can only wish her luck.

Movie Nostalgia

Going to the movies in the late sixties and early seventies was a vastly different experience from the sanitised one nowadays. Living in the suburbs (which was practically meant village in those days in India), our options were severely limited. My home town of Tripunithura in Kerala had exactly three theatres: none of them air-conditioned and only one provided with a balcony. You sat on cushioned chairs only if you had a balcony ticket. The first and second class had wooden or cane chairs (in one theatre, the second class was benches with backrest): after that there was the “bench” (without the backrest) then the infamous തറ (thara, “the floor”), where you squatted or sat cross-legged on the floor (even now, calling somebody തറ is derogatory in Kerala).

You paid the lordly sum of two rupees for a balcony ticket. First class was Rs. 1.50, second class one rupee, benches fifty paise and “thara”, 25 paise. As you moved down and down the hierarchy of classes, you moved nearer and nearer to the screen – with the consequence that the images got bigger and less clear (becoming virtual patterns of light for those at the very front), and you got a crick in the neck by the time the movie ended, as a consequence of staring upward.

The theatre would be usually filled with cigarette smoke. At the beginning of the show, the mandatory warning would be flashed on the screen: “Smoking inside the theatre is punishable under law.” This was the signal for all and sundry to light up. Soon, you could see the smoke swirling in the beam from the projector, creating interesting shapes (I used to amuse myself watching these if the movie was boring). The smell of the cigarettes would be mixed with the faint smell of ammonia from the urinals outside: even now, my recollection of old movies is invariably tied up with this smell.

The seats, especially the cane chairs, were breeding grounds for bed-bugs. They would start feasting on you the moment you sat down. Twisting, squirming and scratching your bottom was all part of the movie experience. After some time, you learned to take it in your stride, and the bugs never bothered you. (Once, I was even attacked by an army of really savage ants!)

The screen used to have lot of stains on it: it would be patched up in many places, and sometimes, there would even be holes. Thus, the drama played out on it would creatively enhanced by a sudden patch appearing on the leading lady’s nose, or the hero’s eyes disappearing into a hole.

But in spite of all these difficulties (which were never perceived as such in those days), movie-going was an adventure. In a world devoid of TV, computer and social media, it was the main source of entertainment for the community. It was a weekly ritual akin to a visit to the temple.

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In the days before TV, we got to know about movies through (1) newspaper advertisements (2) posters plastered on walls and (3) cinema notices. The last page of all our local dailies was reserved for films, where each Friday the new releases enticed us to the theatres. Much before that, posters would start appearing on the walls; smiling heroes, frowning villains and pouting vamps – with the tantalising caption “coming soon!” (This culture is still alive and kicking today.) But the most exciting was the cinema notice, distributed from cars fitted with loudspeakers, blaring announcements about the film in-between song bits. The notice would contain half the story, and leave it hanging at a crucial point with the statement “watch the remaining tense scenes on the silver screen”.

There would usually be three shows initially: the matinee at 3:00 P.M., the first show at 6:30 P.M. and the second show at 9.30 P.M. As kids, we were allowed to go alone only for the matinees. The first shows were for the family. The second shows were to be abhorred, only for bachelors as the theatres were likely to be populated by drunkards, women of loose morals and similar denizens of the night.

The shows were announced by music through the loudspeakers at the theatre, usually ninety minutes before the show – these would be switched off, and the music played only inside the movie hall, exactly half an hour before the start (this was the signal for stragglers to get to the theatre).

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“Goti Soda” (Image courtesy: Mumbaimag)

On opening days of popular films, there would be a mad rush for tickets: queues were at the best rudimentary, and the strong muscled in from anywhere and everywhere. (One of the theatres in Thripunithura was owned by a relative, and a family friend operated the ticket booth in the other, so I did not face much of a problem in obtaining entrance.) Even when the available tickets were sold out, the theatre owners often obliged by pushing in extra chairs in the vacant spaces, and I have even seen people standing and watching the movie once! Many a time, the show started late while these arrangements were in progress. People didn’t mind much, in those days.

There were some pre-show rituals – vendors would circulate selling roasted peanuts in conical newspaper packets, the iconic “goli soda” (the soda bottle stoppered with a glass marble) and the പാട്ടുപുസ്തകം (“pattupusthakam”, song book): a small booklet containing all the songs from the movie. (I had a big collection of these books. I used to learn the songs by heart and sing them – mostly off-key – in the bathroom). These vendors made their rounds again during the interval (the mandatory 10-minute break for all Indian movies).

Before the movie started, there would be ad films and then, the news reel. In the pre-TV era, this was our only exposure to news via the visual media. Sometimes, small documentaries created by the Films Division of the Indian Government would also be screened before the movie proper (some of these documentaries were excellent).

Then after all these preliminaries were done, the film proper would start – sometimes welcomed by claps from the audience.

 

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Our film-going experience was not without its hardships. Many a time, the power would fail, and the movie projector would be powered by a diesel generator. This would entail switching off all the fans in the theatre, making it swelteringly hot in the summer. The film sometimes got cut: then we had to wait till it was spliced together. Once, I remember the projector striking work in the middle and the show was cancelled – audience were given tickets to see it at a later date.

But we did not care about these. In a life largely devoid of luxuries as we know it today, these were all minor irritants in the magic ritual of “going to the movies”. Hardships were naturally to be endured when one awaited the favour of such a magnificent deity – the Goddess of the Silver Screen.

A Review of “Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino

Oh, the city, city… the endless sea…
Fun and games on top, mud and filth beneath –
A beauty who smiles on the surface;
The mistress who wouldn’t let you go…

So wrote one of our poets.

You live in the city: and slowly, the city starts living in you. It takes on a life of its own in your mind. Once the city gets to you, it won’t let you go. (I speak from personal experience. I spent twelve eventful years of my life in Cochin, and I carry that city with me, even here in the Middle East.)

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Italo Calvino has immortalised the city in this slim volume of fantastical tales, told by Marco Polo to Kubilai Khan. Stories which may be distorted memories, fanciful imaginings or outright lies (Polo was not exactly truthful). There is no story as such. Vignettes of imaginary cities are listed, one after the other, in haphazard fashion, interspersed with conversations between the Khan and Polo. The pieces are absurd and surreal – one feels that if this book would have been illustrated, only Salvador Dali could have been entrusted with the task.

There are eleven “themes”, of a sort:

  1. Cities and Memory
  2. Cities and Desire
  3. Cities and Signs
  4. Thin Cities
  5. Trading Cities
  6. Cities and Eyes
  7. Cities and Names
  8. Cities and the Dead
  9. Cities and the Sky
  10. Continuous Cities
  11. Hidden Cities

…And five sketches under each, so there is a sort of mathematical precision. The themes are all jumbled together with no semblance of order. (After finishing the book, I made a discovery – one can cover the descriptions of the cities theme-wise, instead of sequentially, and get a totally different take on the book.)

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Each of these vignettes can be analysed in depth, and dissected using Freudian psychoanalysis or Jungian metaphysics: but I will not attempt to do so. It would be spoiling the beauty of the narrative. Each reader can find his or her own meaning in these cities – and most likely, it would be the city buried deep in their psyche which would be talking to them.

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So my friends, my only request to you is to come and visit these cities. You won’t be disappointed.

SenateDistrict-POP

In Search of the Druids

I think the first time I heard about the druids was when I first encountered the Stonehenge in one of the Reader’s Digest books.

Stonehenge_DistanceAs is usual with Reader’s Digest, the article was filled with all kinds of pseudo-scientific balderdash that is the trademark of that group of publications: but my gullible preteen self swallowed it whole – about strange rituals and esoteric ceremonies conducted during the equinoxes and solstices, and the group of mysterious individuals who presided over them. The article hinted that these pagans knew secrets about the universe which we were not privy to, and I was thrilled – because it was similar to what many Indians believed about our ancient sages called rishis.

The first druid I encountered in person was Getafix, the venerable old gentleman who inhabits the village of Asterix and Obelix in Gaul. He cuts mistletoe at the time of the full moon with a golden sickle to use in his potions and has regular meetings with fellow druids in the Forest of the Carnutes. He brews a magic potion which gives superhuman strength to the Gauls – and thus, is a thorn in the side of Julius Caesar who is trying to subdue the whole of Gaul.

Well, most of the things mentioned above (except for the bit about the magic potion) is true, it seems. However, things are not as clear cut as one would think when it comes to druids. Quite a lot is lost in the mists of antiquity.

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In Druids: A Very Short Introduction, Barry Cunliffe gives us a very brief tour through the realm of the druids, in time and space. The actual historical data available is very meagre: They have left behind no written records, and the only two people who have written about them, who we can assume with reasonable certainty had personal contact, are the stoic philosopher Posidonius and of course, Julius Caesar. Posidonius’s works are now lost, and we know him only at second hand now – but being a stoic, it is quite possible that he romanticised the druids as “noble savages”. By the same logic, Caesar may have purposefully demonised them, as savages with “altars steeped in human blood”, to be brought under the civilised control of Rome.

Getafix_brewingFrom archaeological evidence, we can know of the pagan Celts as a people who inhabited Western Europe and the British Isles. It seems that they worshipped the sky, the earth and water, as evidenced by the various burial mounds containing sacred objects – as well as some sacrificial victims consigned to bogs and water bodies. Corpses were both cremated and buried, and the head has been “singled out for special treatment”, as the skulls ritually preserved in many instances eloquently demonstrate. It seems that they were experts in gauging the seasons and time, and the lunar calendar played a special role in their rituals. Since they left behind no narrative art (except possibly for the famous Gundestrup Cauldron, most of what we envision about pagans is educated conjecture.

So we have to fall back on the tales of the people who encountered the druids to piece together their picture. There are three traditions which mention them:

  1. The Greek Tradition
  2. The Late Republican Tradition
  3. The Imperial Tradition

The Greeks’ interaction with the barbarian tribes of Western Europe was by and large prompted by trade and largely peaceful. It seems that the Greeks had real respect for the druids – our popular image of white-bearded wise men stem most probably from the Greek accounts, according to which they were wise philosophers who believed in the transference of the soul, and studied astronomy and nature.

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An Archdruid in his Judicial Habit” – aquatint by S. R. Meyrick and C. H. Smith which popularised the image of the druid

The Late Republican Tradition (to which Posidonius belongs), as we saw earlier, was rather partial towards the druids: but his Histories, quoted by other writers such as Strabo, gives us a detailed insight into Celtic society. Strabo says there are three classes of men comprising the elite: the Bards (singers and poets), the Vates (interpreters of sacrifice and natural philosophers) and the Druids (the moral philosophers).

(I feel that the Vates were the pagan equivalent of ordinary Brahmin priests in India, while the Druids were the equivalent of the ascetic rishis. However, it’s a personal interpretation.)

Julius Caesar, who opined that druids were originally from the British Isles, does not divide the class of wise men into functional categories – for him, there are only two privileged classes in Celtic society, the Knights and the Druids (again, roughly corresponding to the Brahmins and Kshatriyas of Vedic society). He acknowledges the power of the druids, who can excommunicate whole communities and make it impossible for them to live; it seems that they kept education to themselves, initiating only the select few into their ranks. His main concern, however, is that the druids are a pan-national brotherhood ruled by an Archdruid who has control cutting across tribal boundaries.

Caesar goes on to demonise the druids with the description of their horrific sacrifices, including the notorious wicker man, where sacrificial victims are placed into a huge wicker effigy and burnt en masse.

Caesar was victorious in crushing all pagan revolts and bringing the whole of Gaul under his control – but the Celts survived in Ireland, until they were assimilated into Christianity through a slow process, spanning centuries.

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Famous illustration of “The Wicker Man” by Aylet Sammes

Pagan religion has had its renaissance in Britain and mainland Europe since the Seventeenth Century onward, with romantics seeing it as the “natural” heritage of Europe (in contrast to Christianity which is a foreign import). Based on this, a lot of romantic ideas have sprung about the druids which, according to the author, is more fit for the realm of fairy tale than history. After its heyday in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, Druidical Religion seems to have faded into the background as just another faith. However, its innate earthiness and strong ties to nature may be just what the doctor ordered for a planet which is moving inexorably towards ecological disaster – provided it also does not pick up the aggression of many of today’s main belief systems.

This book is a very concise introduction to a vast subject. It is highly readable (as most of the books in this series are) and manages to hold the reader’s interest. But if you are looking for an in-depth study of the druidical religion, this may not be the place to come to. This is only a springboard.