Friday, November 26, 2010

Timeless Masterpieces: Yasunari Kawabata's The Dancing Girl of Izu, The Old Capital aka Kyoto and Thousand Cranes (by Liviu Suciu)

In my recent post about literary masterpieces I would recommend to sff lovers, Yasunari Kawabata's The Master of Go which I have read easily 5 times across the years, got a place for several reasons - its semi-fictional description of a competitive Go match in the 1930's is something that relates to sf stories and novels that feature intense games or puzzle solving for large stakes - The Player of Games by IM Banks is the best such for me, but the superb Diamond Dogs by Alastair Reynolds qualifies too as does a lot of other sf, while of course games feature importantly in quite a few fantasy novels too. But there is also the exotic nature of Japan of the 1930's and its customs and culture as described by a master.

In a way the Master of Go is a very different novel from the rest of the author's work and in the 1968 award, the Nobel committee cited specifically his more lyrical novels: Snow Country, Thousand Cranes and The Old Capital and I will talk about the last two below.


The story is about a university student's travels though Tokyo. During his trip, he meets a group of traveling entertainers and falls in love with a dancing girl. Later, he discovers that she is a child, which alters his feelings for her.

The Dancing Girl of Izu is the story that launched Yasunari Kawabata's career in 1925 since it was extremely well received, putting the literary community on notice that a new star has appeared. You can read the first 26 pages out of this roughly 35 page story for free at Google Books HERE and you will have a very clear impression why. I was just hooked by it and I started (re) reading his most famous novels for their timeless lyrical style and exoticism that does not fail to enchant, while this relatively short tale contains most of the elements one reads the author for - prose to lose oneself in, vivid descriptions of nature, Japanese customs and their artifacts, great characters...


The Old Capital is one of the three novels cited specifically by the Nobel Committee when they awarded Kawabata the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. With the ethereal tone and aesthetic styling characteristic of Kawabata's prose, The Old Capital tells the story of Chieko, the adopted daughter of a Kyoto kimono designer, Takichiro, and his wife, Shige.

Set in the traditional city of Kyoto, Japan, this deeply poetic story revolves around Chieko who becomes bewildered and troubled as she discovers the true facets of her past. With the harmony and time-honored customs of a Japanese backdrop, the story becomes poignant as Chieko’s longing and confusion develops

Read an extended excerpt with Google Books HERE.

The Old Capital is a beautiful exuberant novel that I have just added to my recent post about Top 2010 Novels vs Older Novels read in 2010. Chieko is the young daughter of a Kyoto kimono designer/seller Takichiro and his wife Shige; losing his "inspiration" and believing his business in some trouble, Takichiro - who is grooming Chieko to follow him in the business - "retires" to a monastery for a little quiet, while Chieko is troubled by the recent revelation that she has been adopted and not only that but her parents "stole" her as a newborn baby on the steps of a temple.

Courted by two and soon three young men - a childhood friend, second son of a powerful businessman in the same line as her father, a young weaver, son of his father's manufacturer who is of a somehow lower social standing and later the older brother of her childhood friend who is the apparent heir of the big business - Chieko is confused in her feelings too and then she meets her twin sister by chance...

Things turn out to be both simpler and trickier at the same time, and the novel is extremely impressive; a fast and engaging read you do not want to put down
and maybe the most optimistic and cheery of the author's work.


With a restraint that barely conceals the ferocity of his characters' passions, one of Japan's great postwar novelists tells the luminous story of Kikuji and the tea party he attends with Mrs. Ota, the rival of his dead father's mistress. A tale of desire, regret, and sensual nostalgia, every gesture has a meaning, and even the most fleeting touch or casual utterance has the power to illuminate entire lives--sometimes in the same moment that it destroys them.

Read an excerpt with Amazon Look Inside HERE

Thousand Cranes is another wonderful offering from Yasunari Kawabata which is darker and more nuanced than the exuberant The Old Capital. In essence this novel is about obsession: with women and death from a man and with men and death from two women, a mother and her daughter whose relationships to the young man in question are tricky to say the least, all expressed in very subtle ways - through the traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony and artifacts associated with it as well as through the meddling of an older woman who runs tea ceremony classes and who tries to influence the young man toward a girl of her choice.

Beautiful writing and a lot of psychological suspense keeps one on the edge of the seat till the end.

Note: I read all three works featured here in dual languages - the beautiful English translation of J. Martin Holman for the first two and Edward Seidensticker for the last as well as Romanian language translations of each.

Edit 11/28
I finished Snow Country too, the last of the Nobel-trio with the above two novels.

To this haunting novel of wasted love, Kawabata brings the brushstroke suggestiveness and astonishing grasp of motive that earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature. As he chronicles the affair between a wealthy dilettante and the mountain geisha who gives herself to him without illusions or regrets, one of Japan's greatest writers creates a work that is dense in implication and exalting in its sadness.

This is the most lyrical and metaphorical of these three novels discussed here and the densest in some ways, with almost each word having a precise meaning. Beautiful, superb and another book one cannot put down once entered in its flow, I would though not recommend it as a Kawabata starter despite being the earliest chronologically of the three. Another A++ like all the above and on (re) reading this trio of novels and the seminal short story that launched the author's career, there is no doubt that Yasunari Kawabata's work deserves all the acclaim it got and will be a part of humanity's heritage for ages.

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