Snow Country – Yasunari Kawabata
February 1, 2017 § Leave a comment
First published in the Japanese in 1947
Translated into the English by Edward G. Seidensticker in 1956
My first Kawabata book was The Old Capital, which I read quite a number of years ago. I don’t remember much of that book now, but I remember thinking, this author seems to have a way with words when it comes to describing the atmosphere. In Snow Country, what really stood out was the coldness of the winter time, highlighted by the white snow and dark mountains.
Snow Country is the literal translation of the original Japanese title, 雪国（ゆきぐに）, which, the translator tells us in his introduction, is “very specifically the part of the main island that lies west of the central mountain range.” It is, for its latitude, the snowiest region in the world. And it is against this background that we are given the story of a man and his attachment to two women in this part of the world.
We don’t know much about Shimamura, though he is very obviously our main character. Trying to get to know him is like trying to peel an onion with only two fingers, eyes closed—it is painful, it will hurt, and there are still more layers to go. Incidentally, the woman we are introduced to first is not the woman who is, and remains, the main reason behind Shimamura’s visit to the Snow Country. Indeed, this woman seems so insignificant to us at first, that we only learn of her name, Yoko, somewhere in the middle of the book.
Shimamura never really develops any kind of relationship with Yoko, despite being extremely intrigued and drawn to her. It is the way her voice carries itself, a voice “so clear it was almost sad, the voice that seemed to be echoing back from somewhere.” It is this voice, and that small flicker of light he saw passing through her eye for only a fraction of a moment, that so deeply pulls at him, he can’t help but watch her from afar.
The other woman, the real reason why he made those few trips to the Snow Country, is the hot-spring （温泉）geisha, Komako. But despite the clear fact that they have both developed feelings for each other, Shimamura is never certain what kind of feelings they are. Is it love? Is it lust? Is it just an attraction? Or is it something deeper and more meaningful?
“I didn’t have any money, and I bought a plain notebook for two or three sen and drew in lines. I must have had a very sharp pencil. The lines are all neat and close together, and every page is crammed from top to bottom. When I had enough money to buy a diary, it wasn’t the same any more. I started taking things for granted. It’s that way with my writing practice, too. I used to practice on newspapers before I even thought of trying good paper, but now I set it down on good paper from the start.”
So visual, this paragraph. I can almost see the young woman, painstakingly drawing lines onto blank paper, creating the margins needed for her to write her thoughts. I can see her holding a brush above old newspaper, thinking about the best way to mark the strokes, imagining everything in her head before the ink even touches the surface of the newspaper.
So visual, and also so so moving. How easy is it for us to forget how we started out, to take for granted the niceties and privileges we have today, that we did not have just a year or two ago. How much of what we have today we take as a matter of fact, as if we naturally deserve it, when in the past we had to work so hard just to get a whiff of it. How arrogant we become, despite never meaning to.
The transition feels so innocent, we don’t recognise the changes we make to how we perceive the world. Yet, the change is constant as we keep putting one foot in front of the other. The view is not the same; it would be ignorant for us to pretend otherwise.
And with all this constant change around us, as we keep moving forward in one direction or another, comes the concept of “wasted effort”, an ongoing theme that is consistently brought up throughout the book. All the things that we do, that we put so much of our time, love and effort into, what does it bring to us in the end? If there are no rewards, is all our effort not then in vain? Is it not all wasted?
To be so beautiful, to learn to play such an intricate instrument as the samisen, to write so diligently in our diaries. What are all these things for? Why do we keep going?
For me , this book was like Yoko’s voice, that voice so clear that it was almost sad. For me, her voice, and this book, was like the mountains, so dark and lonely; like the sky, so clear and empty; like the stars, so bright and far away. I have no doubt that I’ve missed many of the subtleties that come with Japanese writers of that era, subtleties that I have not yet even begun to comprehend, but right now, Snow Country is, to me, an extremely sad book. It’s a deep, quiet kind of sadness that wraps around you and cradles you in a hypnotic embrace.