Go East, Young Man. Go East.

by Kenneth Champeon, Dec 21, 2003 | Destinations: China / Beijing

It was in a poem by the great Basho, I believe, that a master on his deathbed hushes his attendants so that he can listen to the gossip of prostitutes (or was it washerwomen?) nearby. The poem and poet are not so important as the idea, which is that wisdom often finds its comforts and its sustenance in the mundane, the wicked, the all-too-human. This is especially true in Japan, where art is wedded to nature's more homely creations arguably more than anywhere else in the world.

A perfect haiku describes a scene or an event using a bare minimum of words and almost wholly without reference to human consciousness or self. An extreme but common example is the haiku "Still pond frog jumps --plop!" As the Emperor in the film Amadeus was fond of saying, "Well, there it is."

The impersonal and impressionistic nature of haiku can be found even in contemporary Japanese literature, like Yasunari Kawabata's The Master of Go, which recounts the demise of a Master of the Oriental board game Go. Drawn from Kawabata's newspaper articles about a real Master, the novel is a hybrid of biography, sports journalism, and poetry, and its chronological disorder is as baffling as that of Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. Arguably, Western literature lacks an equivalent to it.

Writers have always had a fascination with games and sport, perhaps because they are like life, which is "neither a feast nor a spectacle," as Schopenhauer once wrote, but "a predicament." Nabokov was obsessed with chess. Hemingway was obsessed with bullfighting and what Edward Said calls its "ritualized violence." Martin Amis had a thing about darts. Of these, Go is obviously closest to chess, but is more deliberative and less confrontational - more Eastern, in other words.

"A single game took almost half a year," writes Kawabata. On one occasion, the Master's opponent Otake contemplates a move for over three hours. Go is played on a 19-by-19 matrix, yielding 361 points - nearly six times that of a chessboard. In the Master's final match over 200 of these are eventually covered, creating a mind-boggling Gestalt of white and black stones.

According to the novel's translator, bearing the happy name of Edward George Seidensticker, Go is "not what might be called a game of moves, as chess and checkers. Though captured stones may be taken from the board, a stone is never moved to a second position after it has been placed.... The object is to build up positions which are invulnerable to enemy attack, meanwhile surrounding and capturing enemy stones." The enemy in Go is smoked out, not hacked to pieces as in the wizard's chess of Harry Potter.

The Master himself is old, small, laconic, somewhat inscrutable. "I had long been fond of the bright, open view from Kawana," writes noble Kawabata. "I had thought I would show it to the gloomy old man, and I watched to see his reaction. He sat in silence, as if not even aware of the view before him." His life is consumed by games: when not playing Go, he plays chess, billiards, mahjongg; or he thinks or writes about Go. He is not so much sportsman as artist, "a man so disciplined in an art that he had lost the better part of reality." But the Master is married, and he likes to drink sake of an afternoon, cherishes a good smoke, likes to look at swallows, might conceivably strain to hear chattering bawds as he died.

It is the Master's artistry that attracts Kawabata, as well as the man's aristocratic nature. The Master's last match takes place in 1938, just as Japan had invaded China and begun its long and disastrous descent into war. When the war concluded, the United States sought to dismantle the aristocracy, a move that Kawabata did not particularly relish. The Master of Go is an elegy for not only the Master, but also the aristocratic tradition he represented. His defeat at the hands of Otake, a rather histrionic upstart, symbolizes the defeat of the aristocracy at the hands of Japan's future rulers - the commercial and technical class. "From the way of Go," laments Kawabata, "the beauty of Japan and the Orient had fled. Everything had become science and regulation.... One conducted the battle only to win...."

In the old days, there was something of the Buddhist sage in every Go player. Even Otake "read the Lotus Sutra on mornings of play." The best strategy is to "lose all awareness of self while awaiting an adversary's play." One player practices "ridding himself of the desire to win." Imagine a gruff football coach concluding a pre-game pep talk with the words, "Okay, boys, I want you to go out there and not want to win, and remember what the good book says: 'The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong....'" The gulf is wide indeed between these two worlds.

As the title of another Kawabata novel suggests, in everything beautiful there is something sad, and in the beauty of the Master's dedication is the sadness of an intensely lonely man. It is by now a truism that geniuses are often cursed with an aversion to society. They may be admired, but they are not necessarily to be envied. This may further explain Kawabata's interest in the Master, whom he supposes to have "not had too happy a life." The Master of Go was published in the United States in 1972, the very year Kawabata killed himself. There is something prophetic in Kawabata writing of the Master "that he no longer cared who won, he only wanted to be finished with it all."

Life, again, as game -- except that victory in life is inconceivable. The only victory, and it is a very questionable one (as Kawabata demonstrated by his suicide), is staying alive, is being not dead, is being the happy frog jumping daily and gaily into the still pond of existence. "Just doing it," just Going there.


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Review of Yasunari Kawabata's The Master of Go, Vintage International, 1972.

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