Kawabata Yasunari (Vol. 5)
Kawabata Yasunari 1899–1972
Kawabata was a Japanese novelist and short story writer, the winner of most of Japan's literary awards and, in 1968, the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is widely read in the West, where his novels Snow Country and The Master of Go are particularly popular and his elegant and simple prose style is much admired. (See also obituary, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36.)
Thousand Cranes would certainly be a hot contender for the No-tell Prize, since the most attentive reader, and the most prurient, will be hard put to know what exactly is going on at times. The 'story' concerns the relations of a young man with two of his late father's mistresses—but these crude European terms are probably quite inapt here, 'relations' and 'mistresses' in especial!—and with the legitimate daughter of one of those old mistresses. Where the book comes alive is when the characters are talking about tea-ceremony bowls and other ritual accessories. Symbols are they? But why bring in symbols to express what elsewhere you are carefully suppressing?
Does one's recognition of the sensitiveness of the writing prohibit one from complaining that the characters are so faintly drawn as to seem hardly two-dimensional even? I suspect that the occasional awkwardness of the translation here, as compared with the overt skill of the same translator in Snow Country, is less an indication that the translator has taken on more than he can manage than that there is simply less to manage. (p. 191)
[When] the characters don't know why they do what they do or feel how they feel, it is hardly up to us to pronounce on what they do or how they do it. The ending is quietly cryptic, and that is all. A Chinese reader whose opinion I solicited declared that the story left us with grave suspicions—a highly unsatisfactory state of affairs! And if I might venture a racial generalisation—bad taste though it be to do so—I would suggest that on the whole the Chinese prefer to know what is being done and who is doing it to whom, whereas by comparison the Japanese are willing to be unsure. Such ignorance, or rather non-knowing, is not exactly to be described as bliss, but seems to be regarded as a spiritual or aesthetic condition distinctly superior to ordinary wisdom.
Snow Country is distinctly superior to Thousand Cranes, I should think. If Kawabata is to be prized as a psychologist and more particularly for his female psychology, then there is more interesting psychology and more particularly female psychology to be found here. If he is to be prized as a stylist, as a prose writer in the tradition of haiku (those open-ended poemlets), then there are more haiku and more interesting ones to be found here. The plot is thin, even emaciated, and concerns a love affair (though 'love' is not quite the word, nor is 'affair') between a dilettante from Tokyo and a hot-spring geisha. (p. 192)
[Perhaps] the most vivid presence in this novel is that of the snow country itself. Sensitively and adroitly as Kawabata conveys sensuality in inter-human relationships, the relationship between humans and nature is more strongly and more interestingly sensual here—as in Thousand Cranes, it may seem, is the relationship between humans and art objects. Human effort goes to waste, men and women are like the dew which soon dries up and vanishes, but the snow country endures. This novel ends—or open-ends—as cryptically as Thousand Cranes, but on a firmer note. Though Shimamura is nothing, Komako, usefully or not, is something, is alive. She is probably one of the best, most engaging, most touching, female portraits in Japanese fiction—outside that written by Japanese women. (pp. 193-94)
D. J. Enright, "The Japanese Novel: Yasunari Kawabata" (1969), in his Man is an Onion: Reviews and Essays (reprinted by permission of The Open Court Publishing Company, LaSalle, Illinois; © 1972 by D. J. Enright), Open Court, 1972, pp. 190-94.
(The entire section is 2,510 words.)