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What the Swedes Read: Yasunari Kawabata

by Daniel Handler
Illustration by Charles Burns

What the Swedes Read: Yasunari Kawabata

Daniel Handler
16 Snaps
  • LAUREATE: Yasunari Kawabata (1968, Japan)
  • BOOK READ: The Old Capital, trans. J. Martin Holman

All great books are strange. In fact, strange might be the only thing all great books have in common. The strangeness can spring up from any place in the language or the style, in the story if there is one or the premise, but there’s always going to be the shaky thrill of things not going the way you thought they were going to go, the delicious contrariness of a book that shows you a door to enter, and then tosses you in through a window.

Before I read Yasunari Kawabata, I checked what the prize-givers had to say about his work. I was looking for strangeness, because I’ve read quite a bit of Japanese fiction, and I thought I knew what I liked: the new stuff. The rush and the pop of Tokyo, the neon dreams and the crammed subways—I love all that. The tea ceremonies and the kimonos and the cherry blossoms of the older Japanese novels, not so much. Those books were foreign, but they weren’t strange, and I found something off-putting about the cultish adoration of certain traditional Japanese writers by Western readers. It felt like those little Zen rock gardens some people put on their desks, with a little rake to mimic the actions of thousands of years of Buddhist tradition. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with it. But my copy of The Old Capital has cherry blossoms on the cover. And a girl in a kimono. With one of those little fans. You know?

There’s an uneasy touch of that whatever that is, exactly in the Nobel presentation statement:

With Kawabata, Japan enters the circle of literary Nobel Prize–winners for the first time. Essential to the forming of the decision is the fact that, as a writer, he imparts a moral-esthetic cultural awareness with unique artistry, thereby, in his way, contributing to the spiritual bridge-building between East and West.

It’s high praise, but it feels a bit like the welcoming speech for the first black guy at the country club. I was afraid that Kawabata’s prize was honoring the bridge-building, instead of the writing, and that what had seemed strange about The Old Capitalits Japanese-ness would not be enough for a reader who does not greet the sight of a futon in someone’s room as a sign of wisdom.

Spoiler alert for this and all future columns: I’m wrong all the time.

The Old Capital is set in Kyoto at the end of the American occupation, and running through the novel is an elegiac regard for many of the old traditions and institutions that are about to change forever. There are kimonos and obis, ceremonies and festivals, tofu prepared every which way. Kawabata’s prose is simple, often explanatory the novel was written in 1962, and approaches its setting and subject matter as if the reader has long forgotten the traditions but the straightforward tone is a trick. The novel begins like a light social drama Sense and Sensibility, say when Chieko is allowed by her parents to visit a nearby temple with a young man named Shin’ichi. Then:

The lights were burning in town, leaving a faint glow.
Chieko leaned against the railing and gazed toward the west. She seemed to have forgotten about Shin’ichi. He drew near her.
“Shin’ichi. I was an abandoned child, a foundling,” Chieko spoke abruptly.
“An abandoned child?”
“Yes.”
Shin’ichi puzzled over whether the words “abandoned child” had some emotional meaning.

This is strange. The style is plain, but it’s anything but plain what’s going on.

I particularly like that Chieko seems to have forgotten about her friend, but in fact is about to tell him something crucial and startling,  so the authority of the prose is shaken by irony, or even ignorance, about what’s happening.  Sure enough, the strangeness continues: though Chieko believes she was abandoned, her parents have told her that they stole her from a park when she was an infant, and have spent their lives cursing themselves for their wrongdoing.  Before long she finds Naeko, a twin sister living a life vastly different and awfully close by – and the story moves, like postwar Japan, slowly and unexpectedly into new terrain.  The plot is keenly tightroped between a quiet inevitability and the nervy feeling that anything can happen, and Kawabata ties the story to its very specific setting while also making it feel like an allegory for everything.  Chieko’s path, for instance, feels as twisty and teary as anybody suddenly slapped with new information, and yet The Old Capital could only happen in a place as stratified as the old capital, even as everything in Kyoto shifts.  The strict confines of dress and unsupervised socialization, for instance, mean that Chieko’s suitors have only seen her a few times, and thus mistake one twin for another, resulting in complications that are neither disastrous nor hilarious – the way you expect it might go – but just tricky, resonating with our heroine, who is of two minds and then, strangely, two bodies.  The prose backs this up, with some quiet innovations in point of view:

Naeko and Chieko passed in front of the old family house, which was actually more of a shed.  The straw thatch roof needed attention; it leaned with a noticeable sag.  Being a mountain house, it had a small garden where red berries hung from seven or eight tall nandina trees that grew in unattended disorder.
Perhaps this wretched hut had also been Chieko’s.
Naeko’s thin tears had dried before they passed by the house.  Should she tell Chieko this was the house? […]
Fortunately, Chieko did not notice the house as they passed by; she was gazing up at the uniformly aligned cedars.

We assume we’re in Chieko’s head, and then move to Naeko’s, only to learn that Chieko hasn’t noticed what we thought she was thinking about.  It’s unstable ground, like a culture moving to embrace a set of circumstances that recently were unspeakable.  The ideas embodied feel universal, but I’m hesitant to apply such smooth generalizations: Admiring a textile, a character says, “The design shows your daughter’s respect for her parents and her parents’ affection for their daughter.”  “Thank you,” the designer replies.  “Nowadays people would be quick to use an English word like ‘idea’ or ‘sense’ to describe it.”

My wife is an illustrator, and I had to pause and imagine telling her that her work showed her respect for her parents.  It felt strange.  Reading The Old Capital transformed the world slightly but permanently, which might be the only other thing all great books have in common.  The novel has the strangeness I expected – a foreign world laid out for me – and a sure and cryptic prose that’s exactly the sort of thing that ought to be prized.  And it has been.  The novel was so terrific that even with a pile of Nobels waiting to be read I bought another Kawabata book, even though it has a goddamn crane on the cover.  And a stark design on a white background.  You know?

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