When you know that Yukio Mishima in 1970 staged a nationalist military coup and committed ritual suicide in public when it failed, as he knew it would, you may conclude that he was a rather strange fellow. Life For Sale, published two years earlier, in 1968, is surprisingly – well, I wouldn’t say light-hearted, but it has a degree of bounce about it that you wouldn’t expect from such a dour personality.
The central character Hanio makes a suicide attempt “on a complete whim”, out of a sense of boredom and disgust with the world. When that fails, he feels that his attachment to his own life story has been broken. He wants nothing, he fears nothing. He feels completely free. And so he puts an ad in the paper:
Life for Sale. Use me as you wish. I am a twenty-seven-year-old male. Discretion guaranteed. Will cause no bother at all.
This is the beginning of a series of picaresque adventures as he engages with spies and poisoned carrots, a beautiful vampire, a mobster’s mistress, a mind-control drug made of scarab beetles and a mysterious organisation known as the Asia Confidential Service. There’s a big joke at the heart of it, for Hanio, who thinks of himself as ultra-cool, is being given the run around by all of them, and in the end he’s begging for police protection. But he’s up against the bread-and-butter morality of the man in the street, as expressed by a detective:
‘Respectable people all have homes. They devote themelves to providing for their wives and children. Surely I don’t have to tell you that for someone your age to come here, single and homeless, makes you a dodgy member of society.’
‘Are you saying that every person must have an address, a home, a wife and kids, and a job?’
‘It’s not me that says it. It’s society.’
This stolid philosophy is the bedrock of the story, against which Mishima has the freedom to spin a more and more surreal fantasy, to give Hanio more and more rope. But alongside the slapstick quality of the adventures it’s a grave and thoughtful book. I loved it.