Book Review: Snow Country

Thursday 13 November 2014 by

Snow Country, Book, Yasunari Kawabata, Penguin Modern ClassicsSnow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

Published by Penguin Modern Classics

Shimamura is tired of the bustling city. He takes the train through the snow to the mountains of the west coast of Japan to meet with a geisha he believes he loves. Beautiful and innocent, Komako is tightly bound by the rules of a rural geisha and lives a life of servitude and seclusion that is alien to Shimamura – their love offers no freedom to either them.

Snow Country is both delicate and subtle, reflecting in Kawabata’s exact, lyrical writing the unspoken love and the understated passion of the young Japanese couple.

~*~

Inside the lilting, brief 121 pages that makes up Kawabata’s Nobel-winning novella Snow Country, comes a tale of understated and yet maddening love and an authentic and nuanced Japanese tale of a love story between a geisha and a disillusioned businessman.

If you’re looking for action and adventure, you’ve come to the wrong place. Nothing really happens (except for a concluding scene which ends on the highest point of the arc and feels notoriously out of sync with the rest of the book), and nothing much needs to. It reminds me of Stoner in many respects, but the characters are more heartbroken.

Komako is as alluring to the reader as she is to Shimamura, and although he tries to be a sympathetic character, his apathy and introspection makes him removed from the story itself – a hidden narrator (think Nick in The Great Gatsby – both there and not there).

And as you can see from my comparisons, this is a truly classic tale. It’s so little known, and yet is a perfect gem when you pick it up. It takes less than a day to read (two tube journeys, a train journey and a cup of tea, to be exact) and leaves you feeling as dazed as if you had just woken from a particularly vivid dream.

But my favourite thing about this novel is its evocation of landscape. Almost a third of the novel (or thereabouts) is spent on a train travelling through Japan from the city to the mountains. And a large part of that journey is at night, so there is nothing to see through the window. And yet, in not saying what view there is, Kawabata invokes not only a powerful sense of place, but also movement and history and that haunting aftershock you get from particularly striking landscapes. Even when the mountains aren’t mentioned, they loom over the village and everything Shimamura and Komako do. It’s an extraordinary feeling to look up from the pages and not see purple, snow-capped mountains, but a couple of people napping on the Central line. It was something that struck me with distinct force with this book.

I was also deeply impressed by the translation. All the while, you are aware that you must be missing some of the nuance, because you’re not reading it in its first language, but the translator (Edward G. Seidensticker who sadly died in 2007), offers the story with such skill that you almost feel like it could be an English language text.

I should make a note on the author. Kawabata published his first stories whilst he was still in high school, and it was the international acclaim of Snow Country (1956), Thousand Cranes (1959) and The Old Capital (1962) that earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was noted for his sparse and lyrical prose, something which is evident in abundance here. As a translated fiction newbie, I actually didn’t know Kawabata at all, but reading Snow Country has piqued my interest and I’ve spent hours trawling the internet for more information (and trying to get hold of some of his writings). He was an awe-inspiring writer.

You don’t have to “get” translated fiction to be able to read this, nor do you have to particularly love Japanese fiction, because whatever tastes you go in with, you will be carried away by Kawabata’s lyricism and narrative beauty, and you will want more.

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