The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket by Yasunari Kawabata

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Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Grasshopper and the Cricket” exemplifies Kawabata’s ability, as described by translator Lane Dunlop, to “endow a small space with spaciousness.” The sense that Kawabata’s stories represent the distillation of a larger world endows them with a powerful suggestive quality.

The Nobel Prize winner’s prose, critics generally agree, is highly poetic. It appears to pay homage to the allusiveness and economy of classic Japanese poetry. The storyline of “The Grasshopper and the Cricket,” as is characteristic of Kawabata’s fiction, proceeds from image to image; leaps of associative logic move the narrative along. The narrative seems constructed, in fact, after the manner of renga, or linked verse poetry, in which separate verses are joined to form a longer poem, the linkages dependent on subtle shifts of perspective.

The author’s sensitivity to the fleeting gesture reveals itself in an intense awareness of beauty and significance in a briefly perceived instant. Human actions are linked with natural objects and occurrences that, trivial in themselves, evoke strong emotion. As a youngster, Kawabata intended to be a painter, and his exquisitely detailed descriptive passages attest a highly developed visual sense.

The Japanese language itself is enriched by a pictorial component: kanji, or the ideogrammic system of characters adapted from Chinese writing. Response to the beauty of a picture conveyed by kanji is an essential part of the Japanese reader’s experience, as is delight in multiple readings of characters. The opportunity for puns and wordplay, as well as for many-layered meanings, abounds.

The visual qualities of the ideograms, however, are an untranslatable element of the language, so that a dimension of Japanese literature may be lost to the reader of a translated work. Japanese syntax also tends to defy translation, so that the translator must sometimes be forced to add details or be specific where the author has intended to only hint at meaning. Particularly because Kawabata is said to maximize the ambiguity of the Japanese language,...

(The entire section is 495 words.)