Saturday, October 16, 2010

Snow Country

"The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. The earth lay white under the night sky. The train pulled up at a signal stop".

This being the beginning of Kawabata Yasunari's Snow Country, I read the above lines quite a few times, the magic of these lines was quite overwhelming. This was snow country, everything was cold, the sensualist called Shimamura had arrived by train, we were hemmed in by mountains, romance would follow, followed by love, tragedy, death I thought. This was my sort of country, I thought. However, after reading the novel, a strange kind of emptiness seized me, as if I had just missed that train myself. I tried my best to be a party inside the desolate coldness of this country and yet this romance eluded me. Kawabata's celebrated novel, which the translator claims to be his masterpiece, has I am sure the excellent qualities that has made it famous and yet, surprisingly, it evoked in me neither mood nor misery. Shimamura and Komako's romance seemed quite watery to me. And of course, Shimamura is a sensualist, and Komako is the one who is in love and yet I could not bring myself in any sort of proximity to the characters.

The first part of the novel seemed to drag heavily for me, the second part had some qualities of mood. The descriptions of landscape in relation to the characters and the descriptions of the characters in relation to the landscape are beautifully done, as if the two are commingled in some kind of way. Yet, the understated subtleness still eluded me. Towards the end, I was blaming the translation or the translator, and yet I am sure the translator has done a fine job. There is something about Snow Country that I did not seem to let me affect. I cannot say that it is Kawabata's style for there are elements of it that appealed to me. The beginning was extremely Haiku style, each line a poem in itself. I did not warm to Shimamura and even Komako, who in spite of her tragic destiny seemed remote to me. It was Yoko, in life and on the last page, who realized a certain dramatic and tragic sensibility for me.

The problems of approaching Snow Country are mutliple. I am not that familiar with Japanese aesthetics, nor the foundational aspects of Zen Buddhist traditions, which form perhaps the core of Kawabata country. In essence, this kind of style evokes a dissonance from the unacquainted reader. Whether it be tea-ceremony or flower arrangements, the melancholy of autumn or maple leaves in a train of silence, it is the ability to get inside that aesthetic scenario and then, regardless of outcome, look at the world from that perspective. Therefore, were I aware to be aware of such an approach and am I ultimately responsible from the detachment of this prose? If Shimamura carries something of Kawabata, then I stand apart from that country and yet, in Yoko, there is someone I can understand. Shimamura is a fine man, I don't doubt it, he has a wife in Tokyo, a geisha in Snow country, likes Yoko too, that too I must accommodate but I don't warm to Shimamura.

In the first movement on the train, Shimamura does not look at Yoko but on her reflection in the train window, thus keeping himself at a distance from that face and arousing in himself an aesthetic distance. If the attempt is to resolve some kind of a spiritual crisis and pass on a certain Zen stage through his requited and unrequited passions, then, as I said earlier, a reader like me must visit many things before visiting snow country. It is my resolve to read Snow Country again, to draw from it the mystery and magic that the first three lines promised and the rest decided to conceal. The fault is however, entirely mine.


Roxana said...

but see, you expressed my feelings, exactly my feelings, i have been harbouring these vague feelings of discontent after finishing the novel and never could quite put the finger on them. for him, his masterpieces are definitely others, especially that breathtaking story House of the Sleeping Beauties.
yet you talk about the opening of the book, and again i have to agree, especially the scene with Shimamura looking at the girl's reflection in the train window, that particular passage simply killed me.

(it's been slowly raining here, for so long, one of these days will find me write long-overdue letters...)

Kubla Khan said...

Thanks Roxana, I agree entirely with you on this.

That train passage yes, very emotive.

And yes, I wait for your letters!

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