In the 1950′s in Kyoto, Japan, a stunning medieval Buddhist temple stood that was considered a national treasure. It had stood for over 500 years and was, apparently, truly inspiring to behold. It was called the Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji).
Around this time, however, in an event that shocked the nation, a disgruntled and possibly mentally disturbed monk burned the temple to the ground. He planned to commit suicide along with the temple and had arsenic, but lost courage and fled when the temple went up in flames. In the subsequent trial, the monk described his childhood, explained that he had always been seen as ugly and had been relentlessly mocked, and he became consumed with jealousy for the beautiful temple and how it was loved by its many visitors. He was determined to destroy both it and himself, he said. Shortly afterward, Japanese writer Yukio Mishima turned this event into fiction. The resulting novel, which I read this past week, is a fascinating, introspective, and darkly obsessed portrait from the perspective of a mind that is consumed and haunted by beauty.
For anyone who enjoys detailed psychological novels, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion
is not to be missed. It begins with our anti-hero’s childhood and shows his family life and how he is constantly mocked for his appearance and for his persistent stutter. This may seem like a classic and fairly conventional story of bullying creating a twisted villain, but Mishima manages to keep the psychology moving in startling directions. Our hero does not hate the “pretty” people who mock him; he comes to love beauty and be obsessed by it. He sees beauty as the fundamental dividing line between people in the world, and ultimately seems to define it as something inhuman, a level of perfection that is incompatible with living in the world. What comes from this realization is the desire to do violence to anything that is beautiful.
The psychology continues to twist and turn as we see the evolution of our villain. The narrator is not without friends, but these friends seem to only strengthen his conviction that what is beautiful has no rightful place existing in our flawed, normal sphere. Throughout this is threaded the temple itself — a symbol of this unearthly beauty, looming larger and larger in our hero’s thoughts. Even though I entered this book knowing its inevitable conclusion, I still found it surprising, which speaks to the skill of the author. The source of suspense is in the how and why of the character’s psychology — somehow I was on the edge of my seat, wondering how this character would make the leap from worshiping beauty to needing to destroy it.