Mario Vargas Llosa's latest essay collection is Touchstones (Faber and Faber). He is currently writing a novel about Irish patriot Roger Casement and his exposure of human rights in the Congo.

Her young, dark breath full of life

While reading Yasunari Kawabata's powerful story, "House of the Sleeping Beauties", I have asked myself many times how much may have been lost in the process of decanting the original Japanese signs into robust Spanish words – how many nuances, allusions, scents, references or subliminal messages might have disappeared during the linguistic journey of a story that, besides being tender, arousing and terrifying, is as laden with symbolism and mystery as an alchemical text. Yet still, what has been preserved is an extraordinary experience: a strange and seductive fable which documents like few others that profound realm where sexual desires and the drives towards death and destruction merge into one another, conspiratorially and inextricably intertwined.

The central anecdote seems inspired by the Biblical tale of the enfeebled old king who is made to sleep with a nubile young woman, so that he may be revived: "Now King David was old and stricken in years; and they covered him with clothes, but he gat no heat. Wherefore his servants said unto him, 'Let there be sought for my lord the king a young virgin: and let her stand before the king, and let her cherish him, and let her lie in thy bosom, that my lord the king may get heat.' So they sought for a fair damsel throughout all the coasts of Israel, and found Abishag, a Shunamite, and brought her to the king. And the damsel was very fair, and cherished the king, and ministered to him: but the king knew her not."

It is an old myth or illusion, lurking in all cultures. Eguchi, the protagonist of the story, remembers this on one of those sad and intense nights he spends in the place where the sleeping beauties dwell: "From ancient times old men had sought to use the scent given off by girls as an elixir of youth". He is not a decrepit old man already dead to sex like his friend Kiga, who reveals to him the existence of the secret house, a sort of sexual monastery or fantasy cloister where clients go to spend the night next to drugged young women. He is sixty-seven and his virility is still potent, though declining; the pleasures he seeks there, if they can be called that, have as much to do with memory and imagination as with the body. The house is governed by strict rules which protect the integrity of the girls, who are virgins: they cannot be raped or tortured. But still, they are there so that the minds of the old men, warmed by the proximity of the unconscious bodies, can commit every kind of excess with them. Eguchi succumbs to temptation a few times and dreams up cruelties and exciting deaths for his docile female companions. But these are exceptional instances. The sleeping beauties he contemplates attentively, in rapture and above all in desperation, reawaken his memories, returning to him the faces and voices of old lovers, crucial moments in which, whether happy or unhappy, he lived life to the full; or, as with the memory of his youngest daughter, raped by one suitor and married to another, when he was struck by vertigo before the unfathomable complexity of the human soul.

Does Eguchi enjoy himself next to the sleeping girls? It would be difficult to speak of happiness in the sense of contentment with the world, with himself and others. The sleeping beauties with whom Eguchi can dream but not speak, who have never seen him and will never know that he spent the night with them, make him terribly aware of his solitude, just as the youth and freshness of their faces and bodies make him see the irremediable decadence, sadness and ugliness of old age. But "House of the Sleeping Beauties" is not a puritanical work, not one of those medieval "exemplars" full of ferocious couplings intended to demonstrate the horrors of sin. Not at all: it is a story in which eroticism – physical love enriched by fantasy and the art of ceremony – plays a cardinal role. The delicacy of the descriptions of the female body and of the turbulent desires or tender sensations it arouses, gradually give rise to an atmosphere of captivating sensuality in which all the surrounding objects – the electric blanket, the painting of an autumnal landscape, the crimson velvet curtains and even the distant breaking of waves – are impregnated with carnality and desire.

But here, as in Mallarmé's poem, "the flesh is sad, alas". Our protagonist is a man to whom physical decadence gives a mordant awareness of death, and this house of sex is also a place full of enigmas and rituals where, without wishing to or knowing it, the beautiful girls and their elderly clients seem to act out a complicated script that someone has prepared for them and, from the shadows, watches them perform.

The most mysterious character in this mysterious story is not any of the obliging girls, nor the old men who hire them, but the woman of the house. Is she the landlady, or does she only run the place? She mentions "the man who owns the house", but we never see him; she is always there and takes all the decisions. A furtive shadow, a woman without a name, around forty-five, whose voice sounds like "a glacial murmur", she is surrounded by a troubling air. Whenever she appears she conveys a sense of authority and wisdom that exceed those of a mere lovers' go-between. Not even the death of the dark-skinned girl perturbs her or disrupts her impeccable courtesy; her only concern, at that dramatic moment, is that Eguchi, acting recklessly, "will attract attention". It seems as if it is not the scandal she fears, but the failure to observe formalities, those rigorous, secret – we could also call them artistic – formalities that organize life and death in this space apart, with its own laws and rites, different from those of the outside world, that is the house of the sleeping women. The reader has the sensation that this woman pulls the invisible strings in that small ceremonial world, that she is like its high priestess and the other characters the docile officiants in a rite she has invented, and of which only she has full knowledge.

Eroticism is fantasy and theatre, a sublimation of the sexual instinct in a festival whose protagonists are the obscure ghosts of desire that the imagination sets in motion and longs to make flesh, seeking an elusive pleasure, a fatuous fire that seems close at hand, but is nearly always unreachable. It is a highly civilized game, attained only by ancient cultures that have reached a certain level of development and are already showing signs of decadence. Eroticism is incompatible with the enterprising and martial spirit of conquering peoples, of those in the midst of a process of expansion or consolidation, or with Spartan societies, fanatically devoted to a religious or political dogma. In these, the energies of the individual are needed for the collective ideal, and sex, as a source of spiritual and civic demoralization, is repressed and confined to a reproductive role: bringing children into the world to make war or to serve God.

In the West, the erotic century par excellence was the 18th century. A sceptical century, in which all religious, scientific and social certainties crumbled, in which collective ideals and conditioning are destroyed and the individual emerges, magnified and autonomous, liberated from the social placenta and religious context. Society has not disintegrated, but its instruments of control over the individual have been so weakened and damaged that everyone can, according to his means or talents, lead life as he pleases; and the Church, which nominally remains the guardian of morality and mores, has lost so much power and has so slackened and unravelled that, instead of watchfully ensuring that human instincts remain constrained, it rather contributes to setting them loose.

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Translated by Tony Wood.



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