I've tried to eliminate the spoilers; but be WARNED -- somewhat spoilery
Early in the novel, the main character Mitsu finds himself in the pit where his septic tank will soon go. He goes into the pit to think. The position is symbolic, as everything is in this novel -- a graphic depiction of his psychological state and our place in the novel. The world has become a septic tank and Mitsu is looking for a way out of the pit.
Set in the early to mid-1960s in a small town in Japan, the novel depicts the struggle of two brothers over the meaning of history and the future of their town. Each, it seems, has been designated a role (by history and the natural, horrific flows of the universe) -- Mitsu, the role of the dispassionate establishment figure; Takashi, the role of the revolutionary figure and tragic martyr.
Without spoiling the novel, I'll say that it's perhaps one of the most poignant political novels you could read today (despite being written in the 60s). Relevant themes abound -- racism (toward Koreans), a popular uprising, the shunning of intellectuals, the populist leader who leads by his gut, the thrill of revolution.
In the figure of Takashi you can see shades of Trump or Dutertre -- over-stylized machismo, a fascination with violence and virility, and an intellectual vacuum in place of coherent ideology. In the figure of Mitsu, you see the opposite (but also Takashi's enabler) -- a despondent "establishment" figure, a principled pacifism that is often equated with sterility, and an aloof rationalism with no coherent answer to the energy of Takashi's movement.
The "revolution" itself is an absurd, intoxicating spectacle that has the power to entrance, compel, and mystify...but is also essentially empty.
The most compelling and touching aspect of the book is the relationship of the two brothers. The two often seem to have the power to save one another, but tragically are unable to because they inhabit worlds with irreconcilable worldviews.
The politics of the book are stylized with a macabre surrealism not unlike the work of HP Lovecraft. Terrible things lurk just out of vision and appear in unexpected places. Death. Suicide. Retardation. Venereal diseases. These things stick out like warts in the first few pages and highlight the monstrous conditions of modern life. The characters appear with deformities and the habits of creatures -- a hermit, a character with a deformed eye, and a fat blob. With all these everyday creatures inhabiting the book, the mythical "chosokabe" of the Shikoku forests is the least terrifying.
On a personal level, the book got me thinking about modernity and modern life. It seems all too often that modern life offers us up routines and functions in place of meaning. The book starts with the main character discovering that his friend has committed suicide by painting his face crimson, sticking a cucumber up his anus, and hanging himself. I'm pretty sure that if I did the same thing in my office my action would largely go unnoticed. Then, when my unique problem needed to be "handled" the question of the day would be which department would handle my dead body and who would take care of the paperwork. The dry, corporate platitudes that would then follow would only highlight the fact that most people were barely aware of who I was or what I did.
Luckily, I have no such inclinations. Besides, the whole thing seems a waste of a perfectly good cucumber.
(Author's Note: No cucumbers were hurt in the production of this book review.)
More than anything the book makes me thrilled that I lived to be an adult with a really bad literature addiction.
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