Yukio Mishima's 'The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea' is a short novel but, due to its tight plot, brevity is not an issue. Published in 1963, seven years before he committed ritual suicide, the novel explores motivation and the factors that can cause someone to abandon their passions and resume their life embracing the dreams of another.
Noboru Kuroda, a thirteen year old on the cusp of an adult world, is part of a savage gang whose members, despite their exemplary grades at school, have rebelled against the adult world they deem hypocritical. Under the tutelage of Noboru's friend, also thirteen, they condition themselves against sentimental feelings - a goal they call `objectivity' - by killing stray cats.
Ryuji Tsukazaki, a merchant seaman, has been granted two days' shore leave and has spent the time romancing Noboru's widowed mother, Fusako. Noboru likes the sailor at first, his commitment to the sea and all the manly stories he has to tell. But, as Ryuji falls for Fusako, Noboru feels betrayed by the man's burgeoning romanticism and, with the help of his gang, feels that action should be taken against the man who has replaced his father.
The first thing I noticed while reading this novel was that the characters are rich with life and history. Noboru, at thirteen, has strong feelings for his mother that manifest through voyeuristic sessions at night when, peeking into her room through a spy-hole, he watches her undress, entertain, and sleep. Ryuji, the sailor, knows he has some purpose at sea and continues his life off the land in the hope that one day he will learn his place in life. And Fusako, five years widowed, displays certain strength as she runs her own business, mixes with a richer class of citizen, while trying to raise he son as best she can.
The way the characters develop from this introduction is fast yet believable - the book, in fact, is split into two sections, 'Summer' and 'Winter', to show that enough time has passed to be plausible. Noboru's respect for Ryuji wanes as he becomes the worst thing, based on his gang's beliefs, a man can be in this world: a father. Ryuji's abandonment of his life's passion is, of course, the main thread of the novel and it is a tragic decision he makes to give up the destiny waiting for him at sea in order to embrace the world of Fusako and the new direction she has planned for him.
The best thing about this novel is the language. The translator, John Nathan, has done a wonderful job and not a page passes without hitting you with a warm wash of sea-spray. Metaphors and similes are drenched with watery goodness as they add to the novel's appeal. The prose is warm during the 'Summer' section but as the book turns to 'Winter' the turns of phrase become icier and tend to sting more. The dialogue is nice and realistic and doesn't smart of stereotypical Japanese honour; the way the characters interact completely plausible.
I hadn't heard of Mishima until I picked up this novel and, given that he had three Nobel nominations in his lifetime, I will certainly look out for more of his work. His concise prose, realistic characters, and the way his voice carries the sea makes him a rare find. If books were shells, I would hope to hear Mishima in every one.