Friday, October 29, 2010

The Sound of the Mountain

I feel that if I had to read only one novel for a whole year and never hope of it ending, then I would choose The Sound of the Mountain by Kawabata Yasunari. I would just relish seeing Shingo busy in his routine, coming back home and chat to his daughter-in-law kikuko and think of his lingering love for his wife' dead sister. What better than see his growing affection for Kikuko, with whom his bond is unwritten and unsaid, Kikuko of the sad eyes and clear forehead, Kikuko of the bright Kimono and tight Obi, Kikuko of the graceful shoulders and melancholy eyes, the sad Kikuko, the unloved Kikuko, whose husband Shuichi prefers a geisha. Fusako, Shingo' daughter is estranged from her husband, she brings unrest to her parents house, she is unhappy, she too is sad, there is melancholy that drifts in and out of the Shingo household. At night, Shingo, now in his sixties, fears the ravages of memory, hears the sound of death, fears death, hears the sound of the mountain, hears too his own longing, the failed love for his dead sister-in-law, he sees her in dreams. Shingo's memory is failing, he thinks about the lives of his loved ones and at times blames himself for Shuichi' failings.

At night, Shingo feels the stirrings of desire for Kikuko, sees her and doesn't in dreams, sees the breasts of a faceless woman, feels and feels it, the Kikuko of the bright Kimono, of the tight Obi, cutting and trimming dwarf plants, cutting the yatsude at the bottom of the cherry trees, looking at Shingo with affection and who knows what, Kikuko the neglected wife, of faint early summer stirrings and nocturnal desires. The common occurrences in the Shingo household, the new electric razor that Kikuko has given Shingo, the new Kimonos she has bought for her sister-in-law, the newspaper stories that Shingo' wife likes to read, the morning sunflowers, the lingering gaze of Shingo as it falls on Kikuko's shoulders, on her tight Obi, on her melancholy eyes, her beautiful forehead, the downy hair on the nape of her neck.

Shingo's moral crisis forces him to have a meeting with Shuichi's geisha. Around the same time, Kikuko secretly has an abortion, refusing to have Shuichi' child whilst Shuichi' geisha , also pregnant from Shuichi decides to have the child. Shingo pays her money after she has separated from Shuichi, and the geisha Kino withdraws away. Kikuko returns home, Shuichi starts spending more time with her, though he does declare to Shingo that she is a free agent, on hearing which Kikuko cries, adamant that she won't leave, especially Shingo. Life resumes again, Fusako's husband has survived a suicide attempt, there is talk of Fusako opening a stall with Kikuko offering to help, there is a plan for a family holiday, the seasons have passed a full circle, we have seen the sunflowers and the cherry trees, the maples too, and heard the hissing of the mountain.

This is Kawabata territory, fierce in its ambiguity, in its passing and unpassing hours, its passing and unpassing time, its recreation of a lost romance in changing minds, its hints, its provocations, its subtle and not so subtle suggestions, the romanticism, the loneliness, the eroticism of everything he creates, the mood, the atmosphere, the longing the desire, the stirrings of memory. The tale ends in ambiguous melancholy, the relations between the characters are shaded by restraint and sadness. Shingo is not emotionally close to his wife, he finds in Kikuko the daughter he doesn't find in Fusako and yet he has a soft almost erotic affection for Kikuko though it is never described with distaste. The almost disdainful attitude which Shuichi has for his wife I find something difficult to accept but then I am not privy to the cultural elements of geisha life and the moral implications it might have for Japanese sensibilities. All geisha's are not mistresses and as Shingo lies in the arms of a geisha once, he finds a calmness in that embrance if not just plain physical arousal.

I do not know if the novel could have been written from multiple perspectives for while on the one hand Kikuko's sadness is described with both direct and indirect ways, yet her attitude towards Shuichi is not described at all because it is never discussed. In other ways, with geisha's in the background, all these women floating in and out are persistent acts to which any sensible woman should act against and yet, there are no signs of revolt. Kikuko does rebel, by having an abortion and yet settles in again but does she come back for Shingo instead? Does Kikuko know or feel that her downy hair on her neck appeals to her father-in-law, does she know that the shrug of her shoulders, her bright Kimono, her tight Obi arouses in Shingo memories of his previous love and current erotic desire?

Much and I feel everything is left in shade and doubt. The mood of this novel is mysterious, it is almost scary in its contemplation of moral crises, though it is softer in its eventual ending compared to Soseki's novels. I will linger outside the Shingo household veranda as Shingo will look at the distant mountain, thinking of death and Kikuko and I will linger to wait as Kikuko comes out to water the cherry trees, dressed in her bright Kimono, her tight Obi, Kikuko of the beautiful shoulders, the sad eyes with the downy hair on the nape of her neck.


Roxana said...

would you believe me if i told you that you expressed all my feelings here, the feelings that i had back then, in Japan, when reading this book? no, you wouldn't. yet you did it much more beautifully than i could ever do it, i found myself vibrating yet again, only by reading you, to that strange fascination that Kawabata's writing exudes for me. now you see why i love him, that impossibly intense eroticism which arises from nothing, from such a subtle ambiguity and unsaid longing, that i have to wonder every time how on earth he manages to create such a - for me almost unbearable - tension... waiting all along for a sign, which could let us now what Kikuko feels about Shingo, for ex., if she feels something at all, a little gesture of hers which made me tremble in anticipation... an anticipation always deceived, so that the longing and the mystery become greater, and greater...

yes: "Much and I feel everything is left in shade and doubt"...

reading this made me very happy. thank you, Kubla.

Kubla Khan said...

Hi Roxana,

to quote you, "that impossibly intense eroticism which arises from nothing, from such a subtle ambiguity and unsaid longing, that i have to wonder every time how on earth he manages to create such a - for me almost unbearable - tension... waiting all along for a sign".

exactly my thoughts. it is in the deliberation of those moments, the untalked about expressions, the look, the looking away, that the eroticism lies. I thought when Shingo and Kikuko meet in the garden, alone, I thought i would like to see that on screen. do you want to post a photo on that theme?

Kubla Khan said...

There is a movie based on this novel by Naruse. I haven't watched it but from what I have gathered, it doesn't capture the sonorous seething eroticism of the novel. I however will possibly try watching it.

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