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Asian Book Bucket: Yasunari Kawabata’s Japan

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    Yasunari Kawabata was Japan’s first Nobel Laureate in literature. In 1968 he received the coveted prize, but, by 1972 he had committed suicide. A brief snapshot of his life can be found here. I read the books in the following order, and have found him to be a treasure!

    Some of his works include:

    The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa

    The bruised characters of the underbelly of Asakusa’s Tokyo life are introduced to us in this early book by Kawabata. This first English translation of the master’s work contains some “extras”- including Donald Richie’s memories of a first meeting with the author. Although the “gang” is more a collection of vignettes about the place, loosely held together by a recurring female protagonist-a young, modern, “hard-boiled” girl who has a tough facade, and conflicted heart.

    This was my first introduction to Kawabata, and was a wonderful read. It made me want to know more about the time and that world, and to read more Kawabata-an author I have learned to deeply respect and admire and cherish.

    Snow Country

    This haunting book must reverberate inside a beating heart with the troubling pang of recognition.

    The circumstances of one’s cultural background (if you are from the west…) will not forbid you entry into this world. You are brought along into the foreign by the common, shared humanity Kawabata captures, by the beauty of the world he carefully describes, and you will likely be troubled and fascinated by his writing.

    The “Snow Country” of the title is, in part, inside the heart of the main male protagonist. Even if you don’t like him, you will understand something of his disaffected life. You come from the book feeling that you have visited a real place, and have been profoundly touched by its painful beauty.

    The Sound of the Mountain

    If you are an Ozu fan, you will recognize the lonely father and his disintegrating family. It wasn’t Ozu, but, rather Naruse who made the actual film. A fine writeup on the film (and, the story line of the novel) is here: http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/cteq/01/17/mountain.html

    I recommend the book very highly, but feel that Dag Sodholt can convince you of its worth better than I!

    The Master of Go

    Kawabata covered a match of “Go” for the news, and this was the core of his novel about a master and a much-younger challenger playing the game. You have themes of contrast recognizable to even those not familiar with the game:

    youth with old age, health with sickness, elegance and dignity contrasted with points and ambition. A board game of black and white stones becomes a life-and-death struggle. A book about loss and change.

    Thousand Cranes

    Kawabata tells a tale of a young man, his deceased father’s mistress, and tea. Repressed passions and pain, conflicted desires, apathy, pessimism and hopelessness are all part of Kawabata’s story, and here, he has found a setting for these emotions in the tea ceremony. Know nothing about tea? It’s allright, you know something about life, and that’s what we’re talking about. This is a profoundly poetic novel.

    There is an aesthetic in many of Kawabata’s works- and difficult as it is to describe, these lines of Keats come to mind as somewhat close (from the 3rd stanza of Ode to a Nightigale):

    “The weariness, the fever, and the fret

    Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;

    Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,

    Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;

    Where but to think is to be full of sorrow

    And leaden-eyed despairs,

    Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,

    Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.”

    The House of the Sleeping Beauties

    These stories of strange love are written with a disturbingly quiet and even hand. It’s a genius read. Kawabata is the master of beautiful disaffection. His characters do not feel pain when you think they should, and one recoils, but is drawn back in to the stories. At the core of Kawabata’s work is a pessimism about the value of life itself-even while the protagonists are involved in secret obsessions. Fascinating, beautifully written, haunting.

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