From time to time, I like to come back to Japanese writing, mostly to float in its ethereal world as against walking the more defined (and often harsh) ground of European writing. Besides, there are times in life when Memento Mori needs to be refreshed , and to do this, Mishima’s words are a good place to go to.
The Temple of Dawn is the third part of the Sea of Fertility tetralogy written by Mishima. It is well-known that he committed ritual suicide the day he finished the last book : The Decay of Angel, and hence the set of books are tinged with the after-effect of this event. The awareness of death seems all the more palpable because we know what is to follow, and hence the words appear to carry a prophetic & self-appraising weight.
I have not followed the tetralogy in sequence (I seldom follow order in books), I first read Spring Snow, part one, and have now skipped the second Runaway Horses to make way for the third. At the heart of the books is one person, fated to die young again and again, in different reincarnations. These reincarnations are witnessed by Honda, who sees the same soul in four different forms, and attempts to save each of them from these early deaths.
The Temple of Dawn is named after a celebrated temple Wat Arun (literally meaning Temple of Dawn) in Bangkok. It is in Bangkok that Honda meets the second reincarnation of his friend Kiyoaki, who is now born as a Thai Princess. The princess remembers her past lives, as she remembers knowing Honda in both these lives. It is a fantastic story, and could be written only by an Oriental. The Occidental will find it hard to transgress the boundary of births, or even suggest multiple lives.
From Thailand, Honda goes on a trip to India – he wants to visit Benares & Ajanta there, towns from a very distant past. On the way, he spends some time in Kolkata during Puja where the violent religiousness of the city intimidates him. His descriptions of that madness is evocative. This madness seems to be the theme of his entire Indian sojourn, as he meets a country which is physical, crowded, anarchical and turns him into an insomniac. He dearly misses his country and its peace, acutely feeling the Japanese discomfort of things foreign. The parts on India read like a perceptive travelogue – something a more religious/spiritual Chatwin could have written. I would like to return to these pages when I am finished with the book.
The part where I am now, is almost a second book in itself. As a war is going on from which he is dissociated due to his age, Honda finds time for extensive reading. He reads and reflects on various theories in Buddhism – on reincarnation particularly, and on the differences between Theravada Buddhism & Mahayana Buddhism on the subject. Needless to say, my pace has considerably slowed down in these pages because they are quite rich and dense.
Also posted at Project Dogeared.