A novel that is also a haiku.
Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata takes place on the western coast of northern Japan where geography and climate conspire to create a mountainous landscape that gets more snow than any other place on earth. The small townships along the railway tracks that cut through the mountains survive on income from the few tourists who visit the local hot springs and meet with the local geisha who live and work there.
One wealthy man, Shimamura, makes regular visits to the mountains to visit Komako, a geisha he has developed an attraction to. Shimamura is a dilettante, wealthy enough to spend his time engaged in hobbies rather than business. He has spent his life translating books on western ballet into Japanese, though he has never been to a ballet himself and has no desire to ever see it performed. Komako, like the other geisha in the town, stays in the mountains because she is not beautiful or talented enough to work in Tokyo or the other major cities of Japan. She desires a real relationship with Shimamura though she knows from experience that any relationship she forms with her clients can never be a lasting one.
The book’s introduction suggests that Snow Country can be read as a long haiku, a poetic form that finds beauty in contrasting images of stillness and movement. I think this is an excellent way to read Snow Country. Some of the more well known haiku, those found in the textbooks I use with my 7th graders, do in fact feature contrasting images of stillness and movement. This one, for example, by the Basho who is considered a master of the form:
The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of the water.
Translated by R.H. Blyth
The first line summons a still image. The second provides a surprising though commonplace movement. The last line breaks the silence of the first one, while implying that the pond is the active agent making the sound, not the frog. What we first took as still and quiet is capable of movement and sound.
In his novel Snow Country, Yansunari Kawabata explores this notion of stillness and movement through the action and the images he uses. Very little happens in the novel. The two main characters meet and discuss their situation, their lives, other issues here and there. Shimamura is obsessed with the ballet, which is a style of movement, yet he only reads about it, still words on a page, fixed. The setting is still, a town covered in snow so deep few people venture out into it. The train which moves through the mountains is trapped in the town by a snowstorm.
Upon his arrival in the town, Shimamura sits quietly on the train and watches a young woman leading a sick old man down off the station platform across the snow.
Images like that pop-up repeatedly throughout Snow Country, frogs jumping into still ponds.
Reading Snow Country was an interesting experience. I enjoyed the novel completely. Instead of working on a more traditional plot driven level, or even a character driven level, where events move things forward or conversation reveals greater character, Snow Country works like a form of meditation, concentrates on the images it presents so the book can lead the reader out of real life and into the world of the novel.
It’s worth the effort.
I owe my thanks to Edward G. Seidensticker who translated Snow Country and wrote the introduction to the book. His comments helped make reading Snow Country a richer, deeper experience. The more insightful ideas in this review are his.
This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2012. It was part of the Japanese Reading Challenge. This book was one reason why I became an on-going fan of Japanese literature, though, I told, Mr. Kawabata is considered old-fashioned in his own country. He is, but he is still well worth reading.