The artist Marina Abramovic’s endorsement of Life for Sale by Yukio Mishima in the FT last week piqued my curiosity and, sure enough, this book really is something else. A fast-moving, surreal noir novel originally published in 1968, Life for Sale is about a man who offers his life up for sale. What he expects to be a carefree, albeit lethal, experiment, turns out to be a whole lot more complicated involving gangsters, vampires, hallucinogenic beetle powder and poisoned carrots. Darkly comic and totally twisted, this book will appeal to all fans of surreal fiction and Japanese literature.
As the novel begins, Haino, a successful copy-writer, wakes up after a failed suicide attempt. For the first time in his life he’s feeling completely free. He is no longer afraid of death. Being alive is an unexpected ‘bonus’ and there’s nothing to lose. He’s young, good-looking and untroubled. The suicide idea had come to him on a ‘complete whim’, as if he were ‘planning a picnic’. He posts an ad in the newspaper and on his door, announcing his new business venture:
Life for sale. Use me as you wish.
Before long, mysterious clients start arriving with ever more bizarre reasons for wanting to buy Haino’s life. But what is a life worth? Indeed, what is the point of living? Although first and foremost dark entertainment, the novel does touch upon some more serious issues. Mishima was disgusted by Western consumerism and with this very extreme version of it, he wanted to highlight the obsession with the monetary value of everything.
The author’s own suicidal thoughts hover over this novel. Famously, two years later, Mishima committed Harakiri, a ritual suicide using a sword after staging a coup attempt. Mishima was, and still is, a controversial literary figure in Japan because of his extreme conservative views. His life story is worth a read in itself.
Except Mishima’s misogynist view of women (all evaluated as potential bed partners), this book feels like it could have been written today. Mishima was considered one of Japan’s most important 20th century authors and although he viewed this and his other more light-weight novels lesser works, his incredible skill as a writer, his daring style and his sense of humour is on full display in this book. Definitely in the weird and wonderful category.
Life for Sale by Yukio Mishima is translated by Stephen Dodd and published by Penguin Classics , 192 pages. (This book is only available in Kindle edition in the UK at the moment. Paperback will be released in February 2021).