I value the books whose plot has managed to stay etched in my mind. Some of the novels I've read are pleasant, but they are soon forgotten. The ones that shape me and teach me are the most valued, of course; but I keep a special place for those that I remember. Kawabata's story is one of those. And incidentally, it talks about memory, among other things. It also speaks about the fear of death and the desire to prolong one's life through the elixir of youth; about regrets and unfulfilled desires wept at the feet of high priestesses; about the wish for peace and reconciliation with one's life.
In a peculiar house, which can't really be called a brothel, beautiful virgins lie in deep slumber, naked, innocent and unconscious. Old men come to lie down beside them, awake, troubled, full of desire. They can't harm the virgins, they are not allowed to wake them. They can only touch their bodies and sleep beside them. Such defenseless bodies and oblivious minds, at the whims and mercy of old men. If you look at the picture this way, the story might make you feel contempt; and yet, it has a beautiful and poetic vein, despite its grain of ugliness. From ancient times, old men had sought to use the scent given off by girls as an elixir of youth.
Eguchi comes to the house lured by this strange kind of pleasure. On a couple of nights, in the enclosed space of a room, he contemplates the obedient, exposed bodies of the young girls. Deep slumber is reminiscent of death in a way; in their sleep, some of the girls seemed more alive than others. Life was there, most definitely, in her scent, in her touch, in the way she moved.
Eguchi experiences an array of feelings and memories awaken by the sounds, the smells and the sights. He remembers his youth, his children, the women he had affairs with. He fights with melancholy, with unhappiness, but also with the urge to do harm. In their hearts, as they lay against the flesh of naked young girls put to sleep, would be more than fear of approaching death and regret for their lost youth. There might also be remorse, and the turmoil so common in the families of the successful. They would have no Buddha before whom to kneel. The naked girl would know nothing, would not open her eyes, if one of the old men were to hold her tight in his arms, shed cold tears, even sob and wail. The old man need feel no shame, no damage to his pride. The regrets and the sadness could flow quite freely. And might not the 'sleeping beauty' herself be a Buddha of sorts? And she was flesh and blood. Her young skin and scent might be forgiveness for the sad old men.
The story impressed me to such an extent that it entered the realm of my dreams. I have one short but weird story to tell, and I write it here because I want to remember it over the years. One night, after reading the story, I woke up with the feeling that somebody was lying awake behind me, watching me in the dark, keeping a hand on my breast. I felt slightly frightened but then I fell asleep again, or maybe I was never awake in the first place. In the morning I woke up confused, because I wasn't sure if what I remembered had been a dream or reality. When I asked my boyfriend about it, he said he had been sound asleep the whole night. Weird. And yet it felt so vivid, like a lucid dream...
The strange thing about all this is that the scene I experienced is also happening in the novel. It felt like I was projected inside the sleeping girl's mind. Like I was perceiving through her skin, through her senses, even though they seemed to be asleep. Maybe they weren't, maybe she could sense what was happening to her. An unconscious yet alert consciousness.
Well, I couldn't write this review without confessing the connection I had with the story.
My review is only for House of the Sleeping Beauties
. If you read this, then you should also consider [b:Memories of My Melancholy Whores|760|Memories of My Melancholy Whores|Gabriel García Márquez|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1327484658s/760.jpg|2166510] and see how Márquez made use of the idea behind Kawabata's story.