Month: February 2018

Time’s Arrow

Times ArrowTime’s Arrow by Martin Amis was first published in 1991. It has been sitting on my to-be-read mountain since the 2002, I believe. It came up in a discussion back in 2001 with a particular Professor for Ancient Philosophy from K. U. Leuven.  Its seventeen years later and I certainly don’t remember what the conversation was.  I’m participating in a Keyword Challenge this year – I’m using it to read a lot of books that have been getting fat, old, and lazy on the stacks for a long time. In February the word was “Arrow” (likely for St. Valentine’s Day) but I thought of this lurker-of-shelves.

The novel is famous for being a narrative told in reverse. Time goes backwards from our normal way of perceiving it. Therefore, the novel begins at the end of the main character’s life.  The story is narrated by…. a narrator. The Narrator speaks as if he is separate and distinct from the physical character whose story he tells.

Is it a war we are fighting, a war against health, against life and love? My condition is a torn condition. Every day, the dispensing of existence. I see the face of suffering. Its face is fierce and distant and ancient.

There’s probably a straightforward explanation for the impossible weariness I feel. A perfectly straightforward explanation. It is a mortal weariness. Maybe I’m tired of being human, if human is what I am. I’m tired of being human. – pg. 93

So, the story is about a German doctor who participates in the Holocaust activities in Auschwitz. He escapes to Western Europe after the war ends and he then continues to America. He continues working in his profession but with new identities. In the style of this novel, though, all of this is told in reverse. We meet Tod Friendly at the end of his life and follow along as he gets younger, moves to NYC, moves to Western Europe, enters the war, partakes in atrocities, goes to med school, etc.

Telling a story in reverse is really not completely unique. I think a lot of reader-reviewers of this novel bring up works by Philip K. Dick (Counter-Clock World – 1967) and Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse-Five – 1969).  I have not read either work, but I am told these are earlier examples, or have samples in them, of reverse chronology.  Amis, in this novel’s afterword, tells us that he came up with the idea and it was given more motivation after reading a book given him by a friend.

I think one is supposed to not so much “enjoy” this novel as be impressed with the temporal reversal. And then the juxtaposition throughout of love vs. heinous crime surely has some literary value. Throughout the novel, the Narrator puzzles over the main character’s love affairs and relationships. The relationships are never very successful and seem to be fraught with unhappiness or recklessness. As much as segments of the main character’s life are referenced via names and places, the Narrator and reader compartmentalize these segments based on the love interest(s). Irene, Rosa, Herta, et al.

The psychological ramifications of the main character’s wartime actions are mused over by the Narrator, but confusedly. Since we are going backward in time, the Narrator does not know why there exist these ramifications at all. And the main character goes to lengths to keep a part of himself/his past hidden from other characters. There are scenes and hints that there has been something of a realization of the horrors committed, but nothing more definite can be said. Obviously, the main character is a damaged character, but the reader does not feel any sympathy for him. A forlorn sorrow, maybe.

The interesting parts come into play with the little things. For example, since it all occurs in reverse, a bowel movement changes direction in this story.  Instead of paying people for goods and services, we take money from them. Walking and driving is done in reverse – without looking – no wonder the Narrator is amazed by this. Especially, the medical profession seems bizarre – they shove bullets in people, pull stitches out, break bones – all the healing and curative actions in reverse.

The dualism of the Narrator and the main character is problematic. Is this a soul that has been added to whatever is the main character? Is the Narrator a conscience? Is the Narrator the psychological split caused by the main character’s mental traumas? Is the Narrator just a vague storytelling device? It is not worked out thoroughly and none of these answers fit perfectly, which only exacerbates my annoyance with this novel.

Even if appreciative of the effort, I struggled to get through this. Maybe I’m too stuck in my timelines. I was bored, annoyed, I honestly wanted to hit fast-forward (rewind??!) a lot. And Freud….everything in the bedroom, the womb, the oven. Sometimes I wonder how we ever did a blessed thing before Freud told us why we did it. Germans. There is a heavy-hand of Freud in here, I am not even sure it is all intentional by the author.

This isn’t a good review. I feel only a little bad about that because it’s not a great book. It is a decent piece of literary effort designed to be read for experiment and exercise. And the shocking brutality in parts of it just feels superimposed on an already tedious conceit.

Recommended with reservations. For strong readers, for those who are looking for a sort of edgy quirky read. For readers who need a book to fill a category re: Holocaust or German doctors. Niche reading at best.

2 stars

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The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

Temple Golden Pavilion

“The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” – Yukio Mishima

This is actually the second time I read this novel. But since one cannot step into the same river twice, I suppose, this is also my “first” time reading “this” novel. Written by Yukio Mishima (1925 – 1970), it was published in Japan in 1956 and was translated into English in 1959. I read the Vintage International edition, translated by Ivan Morris.  It is a literary fictional re-telling of the life of Hayashi Yōken, a Zen Buddhist Acolyte, the arsonist who burned down the original Kinkakuji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion). Hayashi Yōken committed this horrible act in 1950 and six years later, this novel was published.

The main overarching point that I want to assert regarding all of this is that no other author in the universe ought to have written this novel. Yukio Mishima is precisely the one that would, could, and did write this. Allegedly, Mishima met with the young monk once the monk was imprisoned. Somehow this is accepted as near-fact, though, I do wonder how Mishima was allowed this access?  I do not doubt he was, though. Mishima was enigmatic, overwhelming, significant. He was also a member of the samurai class; even if this was already 1950.

Take note, I think if all the dates can be trusted, Mishima was nearly the same age as the young acolyte – allegedly, Hayashi Yōken was 22, Mishima was 25.

Mishima was not one who would stop a rumor, I suppose, were one to circulate. But he might be pleased to give contradictory reports, just to see what would happen. He seemed to enjoy the spotlight, but also knew to keep his cards close and covered. The alleged interview with the mad monk may have been worthless and useless. Or it may have be everything. Or, most likely, it was nothing to most people, but everything to Mishima’s insightful, perceptive, literary eye.  All of this is to say, this could be one-hundred percent rubbish created by Mishima who enjoyed making idols and knocking them down and shocking his readership. It could also be totally peppered with truths and the reader is at a loss for any tools to distinguish what is true and what is not.

Hardly could there be another author who would dare and who would care in the same way as Mishima to write this notorious novel of this national tragedy. Not to mention, using some of the material of the story for esoteric considerations of beauty and nihilism. So, when it is all said and done, I am not entirely sure what Mishima actually thought of the event. It was horrible and shocking and he loved that it occurred because of its horror, is what I think.

Moving from Mishima to history and the temple itself, it should be noted that this event occurred not too distant from WWII. The Nanking Massacre started in 1937, the Pearl Harbor attack was in 1941, and, of course, the Hiroshima bomb in 1945.  While the boy was likely isolated to an extent by his life at the temple, the war doubtlessly crept into every nook and cranny and had profound effects on everyone.

My concern, what confronted me with my real problem, was beauty alone. But I do not think that the war affected me by filling my mind with gloomy thoughts.  When people concentrate on the idea of beauty, they are, without realizing it, confronted with the darkest thoughts that exist in this world.  – pg. 48

The temple known as Kinkakuji was originally built in 1400 or so. And after the young acolyte committed arson, it was painstakingly rebuilt and it is likely rebuilt to restore the original glory of the early temple, and not simply that of the 1950s. I think that even as recent as the early 2000s, highly detailed repairs were being completed. I would be interested to know if Mishima knew of these efforts, what he thought of them, etc.

Mishima changes the name of the acolyte to Mizoguchi, a boy afflicted with a serious stutter who is also the son of a Buddhist priest. Hayashi Yōken was allegedly diagnosed with schizophrenia and eventually died from tuberculosis. Mishima has Mizoguchi narrate this story.  As a narrator, Mizoguchi is entirely self-centered and self-occupied.  If this is something that Mishima intended, I do not know. However, it is difficult to truly sympathize or empathize with Mizoguchi, although he often seems simple and awkward enough to merit some mitigation for his thoughts/actions.

“For what purpose do I live? At such thoughts people feel uneasy and even kill themselves. . . Just to exist was more than enough to satisfy me.  In the first place, doesn’t uneasiness about one’s existence spring precisely from a sort of luxurious dissatisfaction at the thought that one may not be living fully?” – pg. 100

Readers who may take an interest in this story because they want to watch the development of Mizoguchi; from a young boy with his ill father, to an acolyte obsessed with the Temple, to a madman with a nihilistic spark [sic!], will be disappointed. The slope that Mishima takes us on is not steep and daring and breakneck.  If such development is present, it is very subtle. The story is indeed told in episodic fashion, mainly in a variety of relationships that Mizoguchi has with his Superior at the Temple, his fellow acolytes, and his fellow schoolmates.

Many of the episodes that Mizoguchi undergoes are, in a sense, difficult to read through.  He is not a comfortable individual and it seems that he is unable to discern the normal from the abnormal. Bizarre situations fascinate him and affect him strongly.  Mishima suggests that Mizoguchi is a fully-aware of the evilness or sin in his actions.  Mizoguchi seems, at points, to revel in the sin, to perform the evil action just to bring evil into the world – as if it is a thing of beauty. The way Mishima presents all of this is weird, because Mizoguchi does not seem to want to commit any particular sin for the sake of that sin. Instead, he just wants to do anything evil, any sort of immoral act will suffice.

Was one obliged to pay back one’s debts in the face of a world catastrophe?  I was tempted to give Kashiwagi the tiniest hint of what was in my mind, but I stopped myself – pg. 208

Kashiwagi is a character possessed of a big personality that strongly affects Mizoguchi. Its clear that Kashiwagi is a toxic relationship for the young acolyte, even if Mizoguchi is unable to discern this.  If Mizoguchi had toyed with self-loathing feelings and dabbled in a variety of profanities, it is after Kashiwagi’s influence that Mizoguchi embraces the truly destructive. Mishima likes to juxtapose these two characters and both and neither are his some-time mouthpiece throughout the novel.

“Why does the Golden Temple try to protect me?  Why does it try to separate me from life without asking it?  Of course it may be that the temple is saving me from falling into hell. But by so doing, the Golden Temple is making me even more evil than those people who actually do fall into hell, it is making me into ‘the man who knows more about hell than anyone.’ ” – pg. 153

Unfortunately, Mizoguchi’s obsession with the Temple seems to cloud his judgment and he is unable to discern who or what is influencing him.  To top it off, he has no close confidants or role models to look toward.  There is no one to turn to in the hopes of pulling him back onto a better path.  So the question is not always “what is the evil influence?” but sometimes:  “why can’t Mizoguchi find, create, and maintain close relationships?”  Of course Mizoguchi would tell us it is due to his stutter. Sometimes he believes the Temple – and all that it represents – forms a blockade between himself and others.

There are definite sordid and profane moments in this novel.  Mishima likes to look at the concepts of evil, beauty, war, religion, relationships and show them both at their best and worst. Sometimes Mishima comes across as quite nasty.  At other points, Mishima seems to crave purity and and beauty more than anyone. This book is not for gentle readers.  It is not an easy read – even just textually, though there are only ten chapters in this novel, there are several whole chapters that really slog, especially when Mishima allows Mizoguchi’s mental meanderings to go wide-open.  It can get boring and rambling.  Nevertheless, though I have read this twice, I don’t like this book. But I know I will probably re-read it in the future. Its a good book that is really tough to enjoy.

2 stars