Sunday, January 9, 2011

1. Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

So weird to write "Yasunari Kawabata," instead of "Kawabata Yasunari" like I'm always used to saying and hearing. Anyway, in an effort to not fail my resolutions in the first week of the new year, I pushed myself to register for a card at the local library and get a start on the books I'd always been vaguely interested in reading. None of the books I'd actually been looking for were there, but as I perused the shelves in search of something I might have forgotten about, I came across Snow Country and Thousand Cranes, which I guess is sort of a good deal. Haha.

I'm pretty sure that the chances of my reading a Nobel Prize-worthy novel in Japanese are fairly low, so I decided to go for the next best thing. I wonder if Edward Seidensticker was as creepy as modern Japanophiles. I kind of feel bad saying that about a deceased, renowned scholar, though.

Anyway, Snow Country was surprisingly easy to get through, although the simplicity of the language and vocabulary actually forces the reader to slow down and consider each word. There's imagery and emotional introspection everywhere, and by extension I felt like I had to stop and consider my own emotions and my own experiences, even if I've never been a wealthy fat man in search of a mistress. The Nobel Prize committee referenced this subdued but keen emotion inherent in Kawabata's works:
The Nobel Prize in Literature 1968 was awarded to Yasunari Kawabata "for his narrative mastery, which with great sensibility expresses the essence of the Japanese mind".
I kind of find that hilarious. "Japanese" sounds so foreign and exotic here--imagine the committee giving the Prize to someone for "being French" or "imparting a sense of being Nigerian."

I can't decide whether Snow Country moves slowly or quickly--there isn't much action, but the character development progresses quite rapidly, and several years' worth of events are contained in 175 widely-spaced pages. There's something vaguely irritating about Shimamura, who does not work because he inherited money and instead abandons his wife and children in pursuit of a geisha named Komako. The thing is, though, he seems emotionally immature and incapable of actually acting upon his pursuit, and instead she is left always wanting more from him and living in fear that he will leave for what will be the last time. Shimamura's inability to truly connect with Komako is in some ways refreshing, because somehow that makes his transgressions and abandonment of responsibilities less abhorrent, but at the same time it is frustrating to read. I felt for Komako, maybe because a dead-end relationship is something I relate to very closely.

At the same time, Komako has very clear flaws as well, which prevents anybody from seeing her as purely a victim or a tragic heroine. Her work is less than ideal and honorable, and she is flighty, hysterical, and possibly an alcoholic. Just as I was pulled into feeling for her situation, I would be reminded that entertaining men and forging superficial relationships lie at the center of her profession.

The ending is vague and somewhat dissatisfying, but it goes well with the overall feeling of the story. Things are unclear and muddled, in stark contrast to the Milky Way and the clarity of Komako's skin. I wanted to shout at Shimamura to do something, anything, for the fire and for Yoko, but predictably he does not. Instead, Komako runs crazily to Yoko's fallen body, and it is this action vs. inaction that emphasizes the true gulf between the two main characters.

I think, all in all, I really did enjoy this novel. Kawabata's prose can take getting used to, but after a while the genius of his simplicity comes through and justifies the first--of only two--Nobel Prize ever awarded to Japanese author.

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