Character Revealed: Frank O’Connor’s “Guests of the Nation” and Yukio Mishima’s “Patriotism”

I spend a fair amount of time thinking through transitions and sequencing in my class; from story to story and from unit to unit.  I try to take into account not only what we are doing but I reflect on my students’ US History and Ethics classes to consider what works with what they learn there and I try to account for the vagaries of the school calendar (don’t give homework the night of the Junior Ring Ceremony, know when the Honors or AP US History field trips are, etc).  I know that my stated consciousness about transitions might not seem evident in looking at transitions between paragraphs in my writing, but you could consider that ironic.

When I transition in to Japanese literature I build bridges from what the students know as we head to the unfamiliar.  I also like to raise explicitly questions that have been confronted through literature across cultures and then, when I leave a unit, I want to transition out and build a bridge to the next unit.

Yukio Mishima is perhaps Japan’s most famous writer in the West, though Haruki Murakami is certainly giving him a run for it recently.  The two share a fascination and deep knowledge of the West though Mishima eventually recoiled from the seductions of Western culture and mythology while Murakami seems endlessly fascinated by it.  In Mishima’s “Patriotism” a Lt. in the Imperial Guard, one Shinji Takeyama, returns one February night in 1936 to his bride Reiko–they have been married only 6 months–certain that the next morning the orders will come down that he must lead troops against a stronghold being held by rebels.  The rebels are member s of the Imperial Guard and are Takeyama’s best friends and he is determined to 1) never betray his friends and 2) never betray his military heritage.  This would seem impossible but Takeyama leaves a note saying “Long live the Imperial Forces” (refusing to acknowedge any breach or rebellion) and commits seppuku rather than 1) attack his friends and 2) disobey orders. It is an elegant, though decidedly un-Western, solution to the problem.

The story is told three times; first in what is essentially a newspaper capsule; second in a slightly longer version; and third in elaborate and grotesquely erotic detail in which the couple’s lovemaking is explicitly related to Shinji’s killing himself and then Reiko’s committing jigaki (women and non-Samurai cannot commit seppuku; jigaki is a stabbing in the throat).  The literary artistry is quite lovely.  Mishima adopts recognizable western mythological tropes of order and chaos; Shinji is compared several times to the sun around which Reiko’s life revolves and indeed after his death she goes to open the door on a freezing cold February night that has no sun in it to make sure the bodies will be found.  During the long paragraph where Shinji first cuts himself his eyes move from those of a predator (the hawk) to those of a prey animal. Throughout, Shinji Takeyama’s character is revealed to us by the circumstances, it does not develop as is so often the case in literature.

The revelation of character is really pursued in a lovely companion story to “Patriotism” by Frank O’Connor, “Guests of the Nation” (to my mind one of the 10 finest teaching short stories I’ve ever read). O’Connor’s first-person narrator, Bonaparte, whose French name marks him as an outsider in the extremely Irish story, and his young friend, Noble (again–look at the name) are 17 or 18 years old and are in charge of watching two British prisoners, Belcher and Hawkins.  The “prison” where these POWs are kept is a farm-house where Belcher the prisoner is allowed to use a hatchet to chop wood, and whose owner, an old woman, treats the all like her children. Bonaparte and Noble answer to Jeremiah Donovan who, it is revealed to us by the awakening Bonaparte who comes to realize that Donovan is a sociopath hiding in what is probably the best place for a sociopath to hide–the middle of a war where his every action can be explained away as “doing one’s duty” (which is Donovan’s defense). Donovan does not change in the story though Bonaparte’s awareness of him does, hence Donovan’s character is revealed (not developed).

One evening Bonaparte and Noble are informed that they need to execute the “guests” who have become their friends and card-playing partners.  And here is where the relationship to Mishima’s “Patriotism” really takes hold.  A soldier is ordered to kill his friends. The differences, though, are significant, too.  Shinji Takeyama is a 31-year-old highly trained Lieutenant who WILL be ordered to kill his friends when he returns to work.  Bonaparte is a 17-year-old kid who is playing war and HS BEEN ordered to kill his friends and finds himself trapped with no time to run away or solve the problem of the order to kill in another way (and the option of seppuku–or any kind of suicide–is NOT a Western option anyway). Bonaparte’s anxiety takes the form of wishing the two prisoners would fight or run for it and that he’d never shoot if they ran.  he is coming to understand that except in self-defense he is not a killer.  Curiously, when the first British prisoner is down, but not dead, it is Bonaparte (who is kneeling!–try it and see how awkward it is–not on one knee but on both) who commits a mercy killing.  By the time that Jeremiah Donovan utters “duty” for the last time I feel physically and spiritually nauseous.

Bonaparte’s two “social parents,” his religion and his politics, have told him to kill his friends and in his revolt against this he becomes an orphan (“a child lost and alone in a snowstorm” where, I might add, all lines are blurred and one can be rendered “snow blind”).  His friend Noble retreats to his religion, praying the rosary with the old woman of the farm-house and writing a letter to Hawkins’ mother (a good assignment to see if students understand character is to have them write that letter for Noble, “Dear Mrs. Hawkins, I was with your son when he died, he was a great guy, etc. etc.” –none of which is true!). The story is apocalyptic and uses the language of apocalypse as does Mishima’s story.

A way that I bridge back out of my unit on Japanese culture is through Max Allan Collins’ graphic novel Road to Perdition (made into a movie of the same name starring Tom Hanks, Jude Law, Paul Newman, Stanley Tucci but ending COMPLETELY DIFFERENTLY).  Collins’ graphic novel is based on a Japanese series called Lone Wolf and Cub–a series of “novels of the road.” Some thoughts on teaching graphic novels–especially this one and more as the year of blogging pedagogically moves on.

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Filed under books and learning, critical thinking, first person narration, Frank O'Connor, Japanese Short Stories, pedagogy

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