Read from April 21st to 22nd 2014
I’ve always had a certain uneasiness in how to approach Asian literature. Since my knowledge of its background is very limited, I never knew whether the association of a symbol, an image or a metaphor with a Western myth or a Western writer is not risky or simply showing. But then I remembered that there is no such thing as a wrong interpretation (only a dull one J), that a text generally speaks to us what we want it to speak, that, in the end, its voice is always also universal and personal, so that you are free to beat about the bush if you do it gracefully.
All this to explain why to me this novella reminded not only of the two brothers, Hypnos and Thanatos, but also of Orpheus and Eurydice and of a Mircea Eliade’s story, Youth without Youth (made into a film by Coppola, by the way).
The story is touchingly simple: an old man, Eguchi, decides to visit a famous and mysterious brothel, and it is pretty obvious from the beginning that he enters it rather with the hope to familiarize himself with the long sleep of death and to confront the demons of the endless night than in search of erotic adventures:
A poetess who had died young of cancer had said in one of her poems that for her, on sleepless nights, 'the night offers toads and black dogs and corpses of the drowned'. It was a line that Eguchi could not forget. Remembering it now, he wondered whether the girl asleep.... no, put to sleep.... in the next room might be like a corpse from a drowning
However, the old man visits to the House little by little reveal other significances, challenging him to recreate the orphic journey, to make his own descensus ad inferos in order to find and save his “yin”, his feminine half – mother, daughter, wife, mistress, whose images superpose and become a single one, or sometimes the multiple of one – the sleeping girl(s) beside him:
The first woman in his life had been his mother. "Of course. Could it be anyone except Mother?" came the unexpected affirmation. "But can I say that Mother was my woman?"
Now at sixty seven, as he lay between two naked girls, a new truth came from inside him. Was it a blasphemy, was it yearning?
And the final, maybe most important journey of Eguchi is similar to Gilgamesh, for he unconsciously looks for a chance to regenerate, to drink the elixir of life from Mother Earth, to catch the butterfly of the eternal youth just as the Mesopotamian hero wanted to pick up the flower of immortality:
The roar of the waves against the cliff softened while rising. Its echo seemed to come up from the ocean as music sounding in the girl's body, the beating in her breasts, and the pulse at her wrist added to it. In time with the music, a pure white butterfly danced past his closed eyelids.
If in Eliade’s story the old professor learns that you can sometimes trick destiny and replay your life but you’re not allowed to change your mortality, Kawabata’s hero must also get used to the idea that Death is the ultimate refuge, silently luring the soul from the dream of life, for the twin brothers Hypnos and Thanatos are truly interchangeable, death and sleep occurring randomly, and youth is no more a synonym of life than old is an antonym. Thus, after the death of the sleeping beauty in his bed, Eguchi is offered the same oblivion by the Cerberus of the House:
Standing in his night kimono, he for the first time felt the cold press upon him. The woman came back with two white tablets."Here you are. Sleep late tomorrow.""Oh!" He opened the door to the next room. The covers ere as they had been, thrown back in confusion, and the naked form of the fair girl in shining beauty.
I remember that in an amazing poem the wonderful Romanian poet, Nichita Stanescu imagines knowledge as an endless sleep, artistic knowledge, that is, the only one that can perceive the universe entirely, and not partially (my translation of the following fragment is rather fair than artistic):
They were born asleep
They grew up asleep, loved
asleep and wed
They hated the awake.
Said the awake
do not live within themselves.
Said the awake
are only sight when seeing
earshot when hearing
ache when aching.
Maybe this is the last truth Eguchi discovers in the House: that the ultimate knowledge is nothing but a sleeping beauty.