In the decadent West people often get together and have all kinds of pointless, speculative conversations. The current political climate being what it is, one subject that frequently comes up, at least amongst my friends, is whether you would be prepared to die for a cause, or an ideal. During these debates my position is unequivocal; my answer is a firm no. No. Never. Not under any circumstances. My vehemence can, in part, be explained by my cowardice. I am, I freely admit, a rum coward. I’m not dying before my time for anything, or anyone. Yet I do also have philosophical objections. The problem for me with any ideal – truth, honour, justice, whatever – is that they don’t concretely exist, or they don’t exist, as some kind of Platonic form, outside of man. Someone who dies for an ideal is, to me, just a dead idiot, because their ideal, which is necessarily subjective in character, dies with them. So, when a suicide bomber blows himself or herself up, or if a monk sets himself on fire, I’m not concerned with which side of the political fence that person sits, I’m more struck by their illogical, flawed thinking.

Ordinarily my stance does not cause me any problems. I speculate, I argue, then I go home and, I dunno, have a wank and watch TV [this is a joke, I don’t have a TV]. However, as I came to read Runaway Horses, the second volume of Yukio Mishima’s The Sea of Fertility tetralogy, I realised that my rationalist frame of mind prevented me from being able to fully engage with large parts of the book. Of course, it is not necessary to be able to identity with Iaso Iinuma, the young would-be militant-terrorist at the centre of the novel, and, in any case, even I am able to understand, even to some extent appreciate, the quixotic nature of living a life of purity and heroism, but a lot of Runaway Horses philosophically and spiritually left me cold. For example, the pamphlet The League of the Divine Wind, which deals with a samurai rebellion/insurrection, and which appears in its entirety [60 pages, ffs], was unfathomably dry [I didn’t think it possible to make reading about the samurai so boring, but Mishima managed it – perhaps this was intentional?], and alien in its glorification of violence and ritual suicide. This kind of thing isn’t limited to the pamphlet either; there’s a lot of stuff in the book, voiced mainly by Iaso and his followers of course, about the beauty of death, or ‘sublime death,’ which at times took on almost an erotic flavour. I just cannot, no matter how hard I try, get my head around all that, nor do I really want to, because if there’s one thing I don’t think is attractive, that I will never be able to accept, it is that.


It is Honda’s presence that was crucial in terms of me being able to navigate the novel; without him I think I may not have persevered beyond the opening stages. If you have read Spring Snow you will know Honda as the studious and serious friend of Kiyoaki Matsugae. In that book I felt as though his role was somewhat confused; he was a rationalist, and yet unquestioningly helped his friend in his irrational endeavours. Yet even if you wanted to see him as the voice of reason – which is, I think, how Mishima saw him – he was too much of a peripheral figure. What I mean by this is that one could have cut his character entirely, and the book would have had largely the same impact. In Runaway Horses, he is a thirty eight year old judge. He is then more mature and confident, of course, and much is made, by the author, of his reserved and logical approach; therefore he is the perfect foil for Isao. Importantly, although he is largely absent from the middle section of the book, this time around he is much more central to the plot and actually raises objections when confronted with the boy’s fanaticism. For example, when Iaso loans Honda a copy of The League of the Divine Wind pamphlet the judge returns it with a letter explaining his concerns about the impact such a text could have on a young man.

“Every excitement that could send one pitching headlong is dangerous.” “The League of the Divine Wind is a drama of tragic perfection. This was a political event that was so remarkable throughout that it almost seems to be a work of art. it was a crucible in which a purity of resolve was put to the test in a manner rarely encountered in history. But one should by no means confuse this tale of dreamlike beauty of another time with the circumstances of present-day reality.”

Moreover, not only does Honda give voice to some of your own queries and bemusement [or my bemusement anyway], but he allows one to read the book as an investigation into extremism, rather than simply as propaganda. This is hugely important. I’ve written before about how I am not at all interested in judging the private lives of authors; and that holds true here too. However, that does not mean that if the author’s private life, or dubious politics, filtered through into the work that one cannot comment or criticise; it simply means that I would not reject a work solely on the basis of any controversy surrounding the author’s behaviour. Mishima, it is always worth reiterating, was a fanatic Nationalist himself, at least towards the end of his life; and these things as subjects are dealt with in Runaway Horses. So far, so what. It becomes an issue only because there are parts of this book where violent extremism is written about in glowing terms, where Iaso and his followers are glorified:

“Izutsu showed his lovely recklessness. He spoke out gallantly, his face flushed and glowing.”

Lovely recklessness? Really? At times the language in the novel made me shift uncomfortably in my seat, although, if you were being as fair as possible, you could say it is, as with Spring Snow, merely a case of the style being in tune with the subject. Yet I don’t buy that, I’m afraid. So, Honda is vital, or was vital for me, because he shows that Mishima was prepared to question – at least in his work – Iaso’s beliefs. Without that questioning, even though Honda isn’t entirely out of sympathy with the extremists, one could have put Runaway Horses in the same category as The Birth of a Nation.

As you can tell, the book caused me quite some consternation, and my thoughts about it, as the structure of this review will no doubt attest, are far from clear. Would I recommend it? No, or certainly not to the casual reader, because it isn’t actually a very good novel. In certain circumstances, however, one might consider it worth reading. First of all, Mishima once said in an interview that Japanese culture or mentality is defined by both elegance and brutality; while I am not in a position to say whether that is entirely true I would say that certainly Mishima’s own personality was centred around that dichotomy; and so the rugged Runaway Horses, especially when paired with the graceful Spring Snow, is useful if one wants to know more about the man himself, and about how he saw the world.

Secondly, there are probably very few books that are as relevant, almost terrifyingly so, as this one is right now. Alien, baffling, and glorifying it might be, but this is a genuine glimpse into the workings of extremist/terrorist groups, and the mindset of the individuals involved, from someone who knew what he was talking about; this is not irony, it is not satire, it is the real deal. So, we see the young boy who is seduced by quixotic right-wing literature, a boy whose family-home life is a source of unhappiness or embarrassment [in what was the only time Mishima attempted to look for an excuse or explanation of Iaso’s frame of mind he mentions that he would have been aware and shamed by his mother’s less than chaste past – his interest in manly endeavours could, in this regard, be thrown into a new light]. We also see how levelling fanaticism can be; Iaso and his followers all lack personality, they are full of rhetoric and psychobabble but very few individual characteristics. If you have come across any true accounts of young men becoming enamoured with fanaticism this will be a familiar tale.

Finally, while Runaway Horses is at times fascinating, if you view the book dispassionately and adjust your expectations accordingly, it is only really enjoyable – in the conventional sense – in relation to the previous volume, Spring Snow. When one reads a multi-volume work half of the fun is in the development of certain characters as they age and have children, get married and so on. In Runaway Horses, Honda appears again, as previously mentioned, as does Iinuma, Prince Toin, and Marquis Matsugae, the father of the central character from Spring Snow, Kiyoaki. However, Iaso Iinuma is not only the son of Kiyoaki’s former tutor, he is, as far as Honda is concerned, the reincarnation of Kiyoaki himself. For a western reader, this seems like a bold, potentially ridiculous, move, and yet Mishima manages to pull it off. In fact, that Iaso was once Kiyoaki gives his character a depth he would otherwise lack, for one is able to see his passion in terms of Kiyoaki’s passion – one is for an ideal and the other was for a girl, but both are irrational, immature and destructive. Furthermore, the nature of reincarnation is that one is reborn because of mistakes, or sins, in a past life; Kiyoaki was effete and ineffectual, Iaso is the opposite; so it is almost as though the soul or essence of Kiyoaki has gone from one extreme to another. The two characters are, on the surface, completely different yet ultimately very similar; and I thought that was very clever and satisfying.



I’ve always thought the idea of political paranoia [or conspiracy-theory, if you prefer] absurd, which is not to say that I don’t think it exists.Your government* is out to get you! Will do anything [aaaaanything] it considers in its own interests! Will stop at nothing [naaaathing] to cover up the mess they make! Yeah, and? Paranoia is a word that suggests a lack of reason, a looking over your shoulder, a constant vigilance or ultra-awareness; a paranoiac is someone prey to visions, ghouls, and monsters in the closet and under the bed; and, well, all that, the suggestion that to your government you are at best little more than currency and at worst an easily expendable nuisance, that your government would quite happily throw you or anyone else off a cliff to further their own projects, seems self-evident to me, natural almost, certainly undeniable. Paranoia? Whatever, dude. It’s not paranoia when the evidence is so compelling.

Recently there has been a high-profile case in the UK involving  an ex-undercover agent. This man claims that he was asked, by the government, to dig for dirt on the family of an entirely innocent murdered black teenager who had been the victim of a racist attack. To what end, you might ask? Well, to discredit them [the family] of course, to turn public opinion against them if necessary, to sow seeds of doubt if such seeds are needed at any time. While they may not need it, this potential dirt-information is worth having in reserve if one should want to quell public passions, because, y’know, the death or murder of an innocent person, or the reputation and grief of their family, pales in comparison with the interests and standing of your democratically elected leaders and the faceless people behind them and working for them. Was I shocked by these revelations? Outraged? No. I’d expect nothing less. So the idea that a government, or shadowy forces within a government, might participate in, or arrange the assassination of a president, or that it/they would allow a plot to proceed, sanction it almost, and then help to cover it up are not things I have trouble believing. My hard-earned cynicism is at such a pitch that I would be surprised if this hadn’t happened at some point or other; indeed, I consider governmental forces to be capable of much much worse.

6.9 seconds of heat and light is how Don Delillo describes it. The murder of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th president of the United States of America. A man whose life and death is so fabled, so subject to mystery and conjecture that it’s easy to forget that he was flesh and blood and bones [it slips one’s mind even while one watches grainy footage of this flesh and blood and bone seemingly spontaneously explode; yes, I have, shamefully, seen the Zapruder film too, a film that I consider, by the way, to be the birth of the 21st century]. But this book, Libra, isn’t really about John Kennedy, nor, really, is it about Lee Harvey Oswald. Is it about the end of innocence, the moment the world, or America at least, woke up? You could say that; It’s certainly a convenient, albeit arbitrary, event to point to as some kind of watershed moment in the collective human consciousness, a moment when the scales fell from the eyes, when shit got real. Yet, while it’s true that a high percentage of Americans at the time thought there was more than one gunman, that there had been some kind of cover-up, the problem with being awake is that it is, ironically, tiring, that eventually you’ll need a rest, want to go back to sleep; and so I would say our awareness, and understanding, of what goes on, the workings of the political machine, the state, in our own countries and in others, is as bad as it has ever been. So, what, really, is the book about for me? It’s about the darkness at the centre of the human heart, about power and greed and manipulation; it is about dislocation, alienation, despair and fear.


You’ll have your own ideas, I’m sure, your own favourite theories, about what happened in Dallas Texas at 12:30pm on Friday November 22nd 1963. The most popular theories appear to centre around organised crime, Teamsters, or the CIA. Delillo takes all of those and cooks up a complex noirish thriller with two dominant strands, the life of Lee Harvey Oswald and a plot by disgruntled CIA agents [and associates] to wound the president in order to justify and bring about the forceful reclaiming of Cuba. The structure of the novel resembles a V, with Oswald and the CIA men etc starting at two opposing points only to slowly converge, to close on each other until the fateful, fatal, finale. If you’ve seen the TV show 24 then you’ll pretty much know what to expect of this novel, which ramps up the tension in a similar way [only this time there is no Keifer, no hero, no one to foil the plot]. Delillo often uses dates as his chapter titles, and so readers will find themselves counting down to kick-off, in full knowledge that the awful, inevitable moment is getting closer as you turn each page. It’s a neat trick.

While the plotting, structure, and detail is almost faultless, the real selling point is Delillo’s pugnacious prose. I’d read one of his novels prior to this, White Noise, which I thought was fun enough but a bit of a mess [the final third of that book spoiling my impressions of the whole thing by being just too silly]. But even at its best I never got the impression from that novel that Delillo was/is a great writer, or capable of great writing. His writing is great here; it’s heartfelt and atmospheric, hard and yet dreamy, and never resorts to cliche or melodrama [there was one moment, a paragraph, where I cringed, which was, predictably enough, a sex scene]. I could pick out stacks of lines or passages in order to illustrate how impressive the writing is, something from every page even, but, as I’m obviously not going to do that, here are three chosen at random:

There’s always more to it. This is what history consists of. It is the sum total of the things they aren’t telling us.

The truth of the world is exhausting.

If the world is where we hide from ourselves, what do we do when the world is no longer accessible? We invent a false name, invent a destiny, purchase a firearm through the mail.

There are, however, a few minor issues, or missteps [not quite boom moments], that it would be remiss of me not to mention. Firstly, a small part of the novel is given over to Branch, a man writing a report, or conducting an investigation, into the assassination; he is a man over-burdened by data, swamped by documents, unable to tease out the important information, wondering how all of the evidence and information he has to hand is relevant or how it fits in [Oswald’s pubic hair is one piece of evidence]. As a point about unravelling history, about how the truth is a cloud of blue smoke on a windy day, it is well done and interesting. Branch sees in all this data America itself, it is, he claims, the Joycean book of America, and that is very nice idea too. But this strand of the book feels unnecessary, tacked on. Delillo needed to develop it, make it a larger, more important, part of the story for it to work. You completely forget about Branch’s existence for the most part; indeed, 300 pages in and he had reared his head only three times, on each occasion with no more than a page dedicated to him.

What else? I praised Delillo’s prose earlier, and stand by that wholeheartedly. Yet, it is also undeniable that it has its flaws, mainly in relation to character. I’ve read a few times that the characterisation in Libra is excellent, especially Oswald. I don’t quite get that, because Delillo’s characters all pretty much think and speak in the same way. The most passionate politically motivated books tend to be like that, it’s almost as though the author takes over or dominates, is always a recognisable and strong presence; it is their vision, their need to get this stuff out of themselves. American Pastoral by Philip Roth is like that too; it is Roth’s book more than it is Zuckerman’s or Swede Levov’s, just like this is Deilllo’s not Branch’s or Oswald’s. Personally, I didn’t have a problem with that, not here and not in American Pastoral, because the passion and the momentum is hypnotic, exhilarating.

*I should point out that I use the term government in the broadest sense. Maybe everyone reading this intuitively knows what I mean, but, at least here in the UK, for many people it seems to put them in mind of a supreme leader and a handful of their most trusted and important minions. I don’t mean that, I mean all government employees; the machine is possibly a better phrase, but it’s ambiguous to say the least.