Kawabata Country

by Kenneth Champeon, Dec 4, 2002 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

The whore-with-a-heart-of-gold is one of literature's most fruitful and enduring types, and there seems to be no end to the fascination many writers afford her. Yasunari Kawabata once referred to an old legend suggesting that prostitutes are in fact living Buddhas, angelic embodiments of the self-negation and compassion that Buddhism extols. It would certainly be nice to believe that the little nymph eyeing your wallet and your endowment is actually a fount of selfless love; in any case, the career of prostitution is certainly a fount of literary material: as William Vollmann has said, it has love, sex, money, and death at its very core.

Of course things have changed since 1956, when Kawabata published his own tale of dallying with the demimonde: the novel Snow Country, his best-known work and putative masterpiece. The worst venereal diseases had been beaten back by antibiotics; AIDS was but a twinkle in the eye of social reactionaries pining for the day when promiscuity would equate to suicide; and the shaky edifice of marriage plus mistress had yet to become the dismal wreckage of serial divorces.

Why is that so many classic novels begin on trains? Is it that trains best embody our ambivalence toward technological progress? Is it that they provide ample opportunities for the chance meeting, the larcenous look, the rare thought? Or is it that on a train we can, as translator Seidensticker writes, "feel most strongly the cold loneliness of the Kawabata world"? (His Beauty and Sadness also begins on a train, with the indelible image of an old man watching the desolate rotation of an empty seat.)

Whatever the reason, a train is where Snow Country begins, and Japan's snow country - "for its latitude," writes Seidensticker, "the snowiest region in the world" - is the train's destination. The passengers include our anti-hero, the pseudo-scholar Shimamura, and a young woman later to be identified as Yoko. Shimamura is drawn to Yoko, and especially to her beautiful voice, so beautiful "that it struck one as sad." The equivalence of beauty and sadness is another property of the Kawabata world, just as the concatenation of haiku-like forms characterizes the Kawabata style:

"Her breasts were rather full for a woman used to the high, binding obi of the geisha. "'The sand flies have come out,' she said, standing up and brushing at the skirt of her kimono. "Alone in the quiet, they could think of little to say."

The breasts in question are owned by Komako, the geisha to whom Shimamura has taken a somewhat dulled shine. Their relationship is fairly typical of that between a prostitute and her clients. Between her emotional instability and his emotional detachment -- he "spent much of his time watching insects in their death agonies" - the future of the relationship is not promising; but sex, intrigue, admiration, and pity are easily confused with love. It is Komako who crosses the line, but she can allude to her love only when she is stumbling and sprawling drunk on sake or cheap whisky in the novel's most authentic and pathetic scenes:

"Shimamura was awakened by a slamming as though someone were knocking the doors loose. Komako lay stretched out on top of him. "'I said I would come and I've come. Haven't I? I said I'd come and I've come, haven't I?' Her chest, even her abdomen, rose and fell violently. "'You're dead-drunk.' "'Haven't I? I said I'd come and I've come, haven't I?' "'You have indeed.' "'Couldn't see a thing on the way. Not a thing. My head aches.'"

Shimamura is nothing if not factual. Later Kawabata offers an exchange that rings of Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants", with its idle drunken banter illuminated by flashes of primal motive and homicidal intent. Yoko has just paid Shimamura a visit, and Komako is once again in her cups. Says she:

"'I do feel good. I said I'd go order more sake, and I ran away. The porter caught me. But sake is wonderful. I don't care a bit if the floor creaks. I don't care if they scold me. As soon as I come here I start feeling drunk, though. Damn. Well, back to work.' "'You're rosy down to the tips of your fingers.' "'Business is waiting. Business, business. Did she say anything? Terribly jealous. Do you know how jealous?' "'Who?' "'Someone will be murdered one of these days.'"

Whore-with-a-heart-of-gold may be a cliche, describing a creature that does not exist. But it is clear from Kawabata that whores have hearts of some metal no baser than our own, or that of any other wage slave.

Kawabata is (or was) popular in the West in part because he presents a version of Japan that accords with Western prejudices. His Japanese are conformist and sophisticated, but also diabolical and sexually uninhibited. Komako, for example, fetching though she is, also has the bizarre habit of scolding and biting her own arms.

The Nobel Committee said that Kawabata "expresses the essence of the Japanese mind" - a statement that would probably not survive today's censors of political correctness. And Seidensticker writes that Kawabata belongs "in a literary line that can be traced back to the seventeenth-century haiku masters." The same could not be said of Kawabata's Japanese successors Oe, Mishima, or Murakami, all of whom borrow substantially from Western literary styles and subjects. For this reason they are less compelling and less instructive. Literature goes forward in part by looking backward, and I think modern literature could benefit from a reconsideration of Kawabata, despite his waning popularity. Modern literature, like modern life, is agitated and accelerated; and while art should mirror life up to a point, it should also provide an escape from life.

Kawabata crossbred two literary forms, the novel and the haiku. But he was also responsible for creating a whole new form, the "palm-of-the-hand" story, so-called presumably because the story is short enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Unlike traditional short stories or flash fictions, the palm stories often end inconclusively and lack an obvious moral or point. But neither are they mere vignettes or "slices of life." Instead, like haiku, they aim at some heightened perception or ineffable truth.

Consider the story "The Ring". Its plot is as follows: a young man is bathing in a mountain stream when a naked girl of perhaps "eleven or twelve" is about to bathe as well. (Girls of this age or thereabouts, often described as "pink" or "flushed", are common in Kawabata: he had a thing, apparently, for virgins and the purity they represent.) "Suddenly, the girl, holding up her left hand, gave a small scream. 'Ah! I forgot to take it off. I went in with it on.'" "It" is a ring, which the girl obviously wants to show off. Though irritated at first, the man inquires about the ring. Finally, "this girl, in order to show him the ring better, might not be surprised even if he took her, all naked as she was, onto his lap."

The story is a tautly erotic setup for what may turn out to be an act of consensual pedophilia. But who knows? Is the girl, who "smiled at him, showing herself off, as if to attract him to her rosy pink body" trying to seduce him, or is she really just very proud of her ring? Does the man's irritation become curiosity because of compassion or prurience? Kawabata leaves practically everything out, and thus what could have been a sordid bit of pulp erotica is a beautiful, arresting, and suggestive tableau.

Kawabata believed that the palm stories - of which there are said to be as many as 146 extant - best represented his aesthetic; and his novels often began as palm stories. Or the reverse: the story "Gleanings from Snow Country" is a paring down of the novel by that name. But the palm stories have been seminal in their own way. William Vollmann acknowledged their influence on his award-winning story collection The Atlas; and according to translator Lane Dunlop, at least one of the palm stories was made into a film.

Many of the stories included in the 70-story Palm-of-the-Hand Stories are based on dreams or describe mythical transformations: a certain girl Yuriko, for example, whose name means "lily child", actually "turned into a lily." Unlike Kawabata's novels, many stories seem to acknowledge the existence of God - albeit perhaps "a sleeping God who was tired of all His human creation." Dying or death is a constant theme - especially death from the scourge of tuberculosis. Birds and children are frequent characters, symbols of the innocence and frailty with which Kawabata identified. And many of the orphan Kawabata's characters have no parents or do not know who their real parents are.

Another dominant characteristic of Kawabata's writings is their hallucinatory quality, over and above that provided by dreams expressed or implied. As Seidensticker notes in his introduction to Snow Country, "Kawabata relies heavily on a mingling of the senses. In Snow Country we come upon the roaring silence of a winter night, for instance, or the round softness of running water, or...the sound of a bell, far back in the singing of a teakettle, suddenly becomes a woman's feet." In the Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, Kawabata writes of the "sound of autumn" and of "a pair of shoes blooming white on the dry grass." He also mingles the sentient with the insentient. Komako called her arm lazy; a woman in the story "Death Mask" complains of her "lonely" feet.

For all that the stories have in common, what is most startling about them is their variety - of form, setting, character, voice, and tone. Like Salinger's Japanophile poet Seymour Glass, Kawabata seems to have lived a thousand lives not his own. He can be a convincing widow, a wife, a schoolgirl, a geisha - or, for that matter, a lonely foot or a lazy arm. Modern writers tend to tell us more than we would care to know about them, but Kawabata is always behind a veil. "Three geishas from the city," he writes in "The Ring", "holding their round fans to their faces, were napping in the little pavilion in the forest." All this tells us about Kawabata is that he possessed a poet's delicate love, the gentle power to hold a world in the palm of his hand.

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Books by Yasunari Kawabata discussed in this essay:

Snow Country, Vintage International, 1996. Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, North Point Press, 2000.

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