A lot of western go players are understandably intrigued by Japanese culture. In that connection Kawabata Yasunari’s novel The Master of Go (Meijin) is often cited, and it seems reasonable to think that it provided some impetus to the expansion of go internationally. It is indeed a most worthy novel. But if you’ve read nothing else by Kawabata, and your taste in reading material gravitates toward what is called literary, you’re likely missing out on something special. He was after all a Nobel laureate.
I want to recommend a couple of Kawabata novels and describe them at some length. Although they were published more than a decade apart, I’ve come to think of them as companion pieces because of some fairly obvious thematic links. I doubt that those similarities came about by some special design but are more reflective of a writer who knew exactly what he was about.
Thousand Cranes (Sembazuru) presents a young man named Kikuji whose late father was a tea ceremony enthusiast and collector of antique teacups and tea paraphernalia. He also had mistresses, both of whom were vaguely known to Kikuji when he was a boy. With the father’s passing, both women insinuate themselves back into the son’s life, one in the role of matchmaker, the other as a lover. Further complicating the picture, the latter woman, Mrs.Ota, has a daughter, Fumiko, who as a child became privy to scenes that Kikuji knew about or suspected but could only visualize. For her the longterm emotional fallout has been troubling to say the least.
With the tea ceremony serving as backdrop, what follows is an internal conflict in which forces of nature and tradition run up against the impulse to rebel. Kikuji is of an age at which people are most likely to balk at anything that feels deterministic. He resents the implied hand-me-down nature of his new circumstances, especially as embodied in Chikako, the relentlessly meddling would be matchmaker. And yet for all that, there’s a part of him that finds a certain appeal in what she’s proposing, especially as the suggested bride appears to be a good catch. His feelings about the love triangle with Mrs. Ota and Fumiko are likewise complex. The tormented Fumiko is drawn to Kikuji as he is to her, but the emotional baggage they carry, especially hers, proves difficult to bear, and they sometimes find themselves at a loss to decide what is even natural.
The Sound of the Mountain (Yama no Oto) is seen from a much older character’s perspective. Ogata Shingo is a sixty-two year old businessman who would like to think he has learned a thing or two about life and nature, of processes that can be counted on. But as he surveys his extended household, he finds that nature has never seemed more mercurial and downright contrary. His son Shuichi is brazenly cheating on his wife. His daughter Fusako is a refugee from a failed marriage of her own. Ogata’s long-standing marriage to a woman whose older sister he once courted might be fairly described as a tolerable compromise. As for the daughter-in-law, she’s been displaying (not always in subtle ways) a desire to adopt Ogata as a surrogate husband, and that desire is often felt mutually.
As he goes about his ineffectual attempts to remedy this state of affairs, Ogata’s mind seizes and ruminates upon all manner of anomalies. He observes plant and animal behaviour he imagines to be eccentric. Two pine trees seen from a train appear to be slowly moving to embrace one another. A neighbourhood dog chooses to have her puppies under Ogata’s house, though the dog is known to have a responsible owner. He is drawn to newspaper stories about the discovery of two-thousand year old lotuses, and the growing trend of abortion among teens.
In his relations with old friends and associates, again Ogata sees these peculiarities everywhere. Sometimes it’s captivating, as when he acquires a pair of No theater masks from one associate and is mesmerized by their surprising range of expression when displayed in different shades of light. On the other hand, he’s treated to a bizarre anecdote about a former acquaintance who began painstakingly plucking white hairs from his head only to develop an obsession with it that eventually drives him insane; or so goes the story.
In both novels, then, a kind of emotional and perceptual tug of war occurs. Both have a discernible plot, but it’s a loose arrangement, and especially in The Sound of the Mountain the chapters can feel more like a series of vignettes as opposed to links in a narrative chain. I prefer to limit myself to one chapter per day because although Kawabata writes short chapters, his writing has somewhat the feel of prose poetry, and some chapters may be considered more or less self-contained. The language itself is quite simple and accessible, yet it can lead you into a world that’s not always easily navigated. I don’t mind telling you that a number of these associations and devices are as enigmatic to me now as ever. It’s writing that consistently provokes and deserves reflection.
I can name only a handful of Japanese writers, and Kawabata is the only one I’ve read extensively. I can’t say to what extent his work is representative of Japanese fiction writing even in a broad sense. It’s a world not readily available to us for the most part. For this reason I decided to provide a fuller description than I would have ordinarily, and I hope it doesnt mislead anyone. Comments, of course, are most welcome.