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The Sadness of Things
on 30 March 2011
In Japanese the term "Yukiguni", or "Snow Country", is used to describe those areas of western Honshu, between the mountains and the Sea of Japan, which receive large amounts of snow in winter, and it is in this area that the novel is set. The action takes place during the 1930s. Shimamura, a wealthy man from Tokyo, arrives in a remote hot spring resort in the mountains, where he engages in an affair with Komako, a local geisha.
The resort in this book is not a typical family holiday resort in the sense that Westerners would understand the term. The tradition in Japan appears to have been for hot springs in the Snow Country to cater for male travellers travelling alone in search of female companionship. The geishas found in such resorts were different to the geishas found in major cities, who are primarily entertainers. Hot spring geishas were expected to "entertain" their male patrons in both senses of that verb, and, as the translator Edward Seidensticker points out in his introduction, the pretence that she was an artist and not a prostitute was often a thin one indeed. The romance (if it deserves that name) between Komako and Shimamura is therefore a doomed one; she is in love with him, but not vice-versa. He may be in love with her beauty, and her arts, but that is not the same thing. Kawabata paints Shimamura as a shallow dilettante and playboy; the most telling detail about his character is that although he claims to be an expert on Western ballet his knowledge of it is derived entirely from books. He has never actually seen a ballet in his life- a detail symbolising his distancing of himself from life.
The fact that Yasunari Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1968 suggests that his work has been appreciated in the West as well as in his native country, but he strikes me as being a writer who is stylistically and aesthetically quite different to most Western novelists, more different than other Japanese writers I have read such as Shusaku Endo and Haruki Murakami. (Kawabata appears to have been part of a movement which rejected Western literary influences, unlike some of his contemporaries who were greatly influenced by European Naturalism). I did, however, derive some assistance from Seidensticker's useful introduction. One point the translator makes is that Kawabata was influenced by the Japanese tradition of haiku poetry. These very brief 17-syllable poems may seem as different from the novel as it is possible for a literary form to be, but Seidensticker points out that in "Snow Country" Kawabata makes use of some of the characteristics of the haiku, such as sudden sensory impressions giving rise to an awareness of beauty.
Another Japanese cultural characteristic present in the work is what has been called "mono no aware", or "the sadness of things"- a sense of wistfulness at the transience and impermanence of all earthly things. Seidensticker describes the geisha Komako herself as "a particularly poignant symbol of wasted, decaying beauty", but many of the natural phenomena mentioned as also things noted for their fleeting, transient character, such as the autumn leaves or the snow itself.
My main difficulty with this book was that of trying to overcome my own cultural expectations and trying to enter into the author's very different world. Certainly, if one tries to read this as a Western-style novel it is likely to prove a disappointment- the plot, particularly the ending, is rather enigmatic and the characterisation is not very deep. It does, however, hold interest for a Western readership in the insights it gives us into another culture, not only though the descriptions of Japanese life contained in the text but also through its revelation of a cultural aesthetic quite different to our own.