The Old Capital

To the Western reader casually acquainted with things Japanese, Yasunari Kawabata’s THE OLD CAPITAL strikes an intensely foreign chord. Set in Kyoto, THE OLD CAPITAL is the story of the lovely Chieko, adopted daughter of a kimono designer who is beginning to look to artists such as Paul Klee for inspiration.

Despite this and other postwar influences, however, Chieko is a delicate, old-fashioned girl. Her life revolves around the many seasonal festivals at the various shrines in and around Kyoto. Deeply moved by the hues and scents of nature, Chieko is also prey to melancholy born of her conviction that her real parents abandoned her (contrary to her adoptive parents’ story that they stole her from under the cherry blossoms in a moment of supreme desire).

What surprises in this superbly written and well-translated novel is not so much the unusual twist in plot that changes Chieko’s perception of herself forever as how it is conveyed. Chieko’s discovery is not resolved in the manner of a conventional Western novel; nor is it left hanging in the way that contemporary short-story writers seem unable to resist. Instead, her emotions--and those of the other characters as well--are conveyed through half-spoken sentences and the subtlest of signs. The result is as exquisite and alluring as Chieko herself.