Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Month of Cherry Blossom: Elegiac and Exquisite, the Fictions of Yasunari Kawabata Were among the Most Memorable of the 20th Century. Jason Cowley on a Writer Who Knew the Value of Silence

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Month of Cherry Blossom: Elegiac and Exquisite, the Fictions of Yasunari Kawabata Were among the Most Memorable of the 20th Century. Jason Cowley on a Writer Who Knew the Value of Silence

Article excerpt

In 1938 Yasunari Kawabata was commissioned by a Tokyo newspaper to write about a championship game of Go between the best player in Japan, the Master, and a young, talented challenger. It was no ordinary game of Go: the aged Master, believed to be unbeatable, is portrayed in The Master of Go--Kawabata's book based on the 1938 match, which has just been reissued in a fine edition by Yellow Jersey Press--as the embodiment of a traditional and hierarchical Japan that is threatened by the forces of change and modernity, a Japan of ceremony and ritual to which the conservative and nostalgic Kawabata is deeply attached. The Master as reimagined in this non-fiction novel has a contemplative, Zen-like serenity: through Go he has learned the art of patience and the value of silence. But he is ill, and his illness affects the game, which keeps being interrupted and then suspended; as such, it occupies a period of more than eight months, at the end of which you sense the ailing Master will surely die, as he does. So this, in every sense, is to be his final game, his last stand as the Master of Go.

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In the oriental game of Go, black and white stones are moved on a board but, unlike in chess or draughts, it is not a game of multiple moves by the same pieces. "Though captured stones may be taken from the board, a stone is never moved to a second position after it has been placed upon one of the 361 points to which play is confined," writes Edward Seidensticker, Kawabata's long-standing translator. "The object is to build up positions which are invulnerable to enemy attack, meanwhile surrounding and capturing enemy stones."

For Kawabata, Go was not simply a game; at its best, and especially as played by the Master, it was an art with a certain oriental nobility and mystery. As with Japan in the immediate postwar years, the game was changing (though begun earlier, this book was not published until 1951). "From the way of Go the beauty of Japan and the Orient had fled," Kawabata wrote. "Everything had become science and regulation. The road to advancement in rank, which controlled the life of a player, had become a meticulous point system." So The Master of Go is less a celebration of a great games player or work of dramatic reportage than a highly refined elegy of a kind that would come to define Kawabata in the second half of his life.

KAWABATA was born in the industrial town of Osaka in 1899, the son of a doctor. His early childhood was marked by trauma and bereavement: his father died when he was one and his mother when he was two. He went to live with his grandmother, who died when he was seven. Two years later, his only sister died as well. When he was 15, his grandfather died, prompting him to remark that, already at a young age, he had become a "master of funerals". His first important novella, The Diary of a Sixteen-Year-Old, offers a harrowingly realistic account of how he tended his grandfather on his deathbed.

Much later, after the atom bombs were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Emperor Hirohito had unconditionally surrendered to the Americans to end the war in the Pacific as well as the myth of his own quasi-divine provenance, Kawabata, by that time middle-aged and established as a writer, wrote of how, "since the defeat, I have gone back into the sadness that has always been with us in Japan".

Was this sadness common to all Japanese, as he would have us believe? Or was it something much more personal, an expression of Kawabata's own ontological perplexity--the sadness of the adult who was once an orphaned child, lost and alone in the world? Whatever the origins of this sadness, Kawabata decided that, with the war's end, he would write only elegies; and so, on the whole, he did, producing some of the strangest and most memorably affecting fiction in 20th-century literature, the last major writer to work in the "classical" Japanese tradition. …

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