Capers in crime: Life for Sale, by Yukio Mishima, reviewed

3 August 2019

9:00 AM

3 August 2019

9:00 AM

Few biographies are quite as impressive as Yukio Mishima’s. One of Japan’s most famous authors, he wrote 80 plays and 25 novels, starred in movies, directed theatre and produced his own film. He was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He founded a right-wing militia to defend the emperor from Marxists and, in 1970, committed ritual suicide, aged 45, after the failure of his coup to overturn the constitution.

Life for Sale is one of his lesser-known achievements. Though it’s littered with corpses, it seems almost humdrum when compared with its creator’s CV. Originally written for Japanese Playboy and published in 1968, this is, I think, the first time it has appeared in English.

Hanio is young, solvent and single. He’s also tired of life and tries to kill himself. When this ambition is thwarted, he decides it might be simpler to let someone else do the job for him. He places an advertisement in a Tokyo newspaper: ‘Life for Sale. Use me as you wish. I am a 27-year-old male. Discretion guaranteed. Will cause no trouble at all.’

That last sentence turns out to be not entirely accurate. A stream of clients turns up at his door. All of them want him to do something dangerous, and potentially fatal, for them, and most of these cases involve Hanio leaping into bed with glamorous women (this is for Playboy, after all). Among them are an affectionate vampire and a gangster’s moll. With his superior intelligence, Hanio survives and solves the cases (even a particularly tricky one involvinga string of emeralds, freshly cut carrots and a top-secret embassy cipher). This enables him to put his life up for sale again and again. But altogether more sinister forces are at work, as Hanio discovers in a paranoid panic during the final chapters.

This existential crime novel has an arresting premise and Mishima plays it for all it’s worth. Quotidian reality has no place here. You know this is going to be fun when, after his suicide attempt almost on the first page, Hanio sees the days that now lie ahead as ‘a row of dead frogs with their white bellies exposed’. His perspective on life is a constant pleasure  — ‘a dead body reminds me a bit of a bottle of whisky’. So too is his jaundiced view of Westerners with their ‘hairy knuckles’ and their ‘gaseous smell, redolent of chives’.

There is a place in life for the exhilarating, surreal and sometimes downright silly. This novel ticks all the boxes.

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