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Haiku in prose,
This review is from: Snow Country (Vintage International) (Paperback)
Unless you are familiar with Japanese culture and language, you will find Snow Country different from most any novel you may have read. Read superficially the novel appears to follow a simple plot and structure. Yet, its intensity and beauty lies in the lyrical imagery of landscape and evocation of the protagonists' complex psyche and their relationships.
The novel can be compared to a Japanese brushstroke painting, economic and suggestive, where the observant eye is able to complete the picture or the story. To fully appreciate Kawabata's prose in English, newcomers are well advised to empty their minds of other, mainly western, literary experiences and expectations and open up to a different world. Snow Country has to be read at a very slow pace. Every word has importance, with sometimes more than one meaning. With these preparations and attitude of mind, Snow Country is an enriching experience that will linger on long after reading it.
Kawabata tells the story of Shimamura, a wealthy man of leisure who's visiting a hot springs mountain resort to meet the local geisha, Komako. He comes for distraction and out of boredom with his real life in Tokyo. Komako is a reluctant geisha, but has resigned herself to her role, while hoping for some other life. The contrast between what they are and what they would like to be is played out in their interactions. Shimamura is drawn to the unreal or the unlikely or impossible. He wants to remain "just friends" with Komako. Her chatty and highly emotional outbursts leave him somewhat amused and bored, yet he misses her when away from her. She does not behave like a real mountain geisha. His room is like a refuge from that life, a place where she can literally let her hair down. Shimamura's attraction for the other young girl, Yoko, a friend and rival to Komako, is as contradictory. In her shyness and reserve she is desirable. She appears to him beautiful and pure, a delicate reflection in the window against the mountain landscape.
Nature and landscape are of great importance to Kawabata and articulated through Shimamura. Nature's beauty is felt more intensely by him than anything else. When he and Komako find themselves outdoors, they have nothing to say to each other. Yet even nature provokes contradictory emotions in Shimamura. "...he looked upon mountain climbing as almost a model of wasted effort. For that very reason it pulled at him with the attraction of the unreal."
Kawabata was one of Japan's most famous writers. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. His Nobel Lecture elucidates his deep affinity to and understanding of classical haiku poetry. Haiku represents a fundamental element of Japanese culture then and now. Snow Country has been described as haiku in prose. Kawabata uses a shorthand style for his descriptions, evoking simultaneously multiple senses, like colour and temperature, stillness and motion, attraction and rejection. Nature is all encompassing with people one component of the wider picture. The novel is rich in symbolism and references to Japanese traditions and mythology. However, some are easier to identify than others. While accepting that the English language reader will miss some of the deeper meanings and connotations, Snow Country is a novel that opens a fascinating world and deservedly has an enviable place in international literature. It is difficult to comment on the quality of Seidensticker's translation. Still, as others have expressed, one wonders whether the translation could have contributed more to the novel's appreciation by the reader. [Friederike Knabe]
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Initial post: 19 Jun 2014 20:32:36 BDT
This is a brilliant novel and this review does it great justice also. The book indeed has to be read slowly to be enjoyed. I have never read anything like it before. Unlike the reviewer however, I thought the late Edward Seidensticker`s translation was very good considering it is so poetic and so it might have been difficult to capture Kawabata`s elegance so I have no problems with that.
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