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Book Review: Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

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Kawabata’s Snow Country is one of those works that readers seem to “warn” other readers about with regard to the level of “patience” required to get through this book. In other words, scenes unfold at their own accord and not everything is explained. One will have to think. If one finds thinking hard, then yes, one will also need patience. But Snow Country isn’t really slow-moving. It is a relatively short work (finishing less than 200 pages) that shares the complexity of human relationships, isolation, loneliness, and even worse — when there are two people attempting to connect but ultimately cannot, whether realizing or not.

Nature and landscape plays just as much an intricate part of the book as the characters themselves, and the mountainous terrain with its snow capped peaks become, in their own sense, their own character. Shimamura is a businessman visiting the hot springs from Tokyo. There, he meets a geisha named Komako. Throughout the text, Kawabata sprinkles in bits of insight, which add flavor to the narrative. Such as moments when noticing a girl’s face, it is as if her beauty is materializing out from the landscape itself:

“Cut off by the face, the evening landscape moved steadily by around its outlines. The face too seemed transparent — but was it really transparent? Shimamura had the illusion that the evening landscape was actually passing over the face, and the flow did not stop to let him be sure it was not.”

Shimamura is a bored individual who “lives a life of idleness,” and he is coming to the hot springs in his attempt to try to revive himself and “recover” some of the "honesty" he feels he’s lost. He’s also not a very mature person, for he prefers to live within the fantasy of his own mind, rather experiencing some things first hand. An example is when he refers to ballet as being something he’s never seen, and thus it is part of “another world.” Though he admits to never wanting to see what it is really like, for he’d rather rely on the images provided in Western books. He then compares this “not wanting to savor the ballet in the flesh” with being in love with someone he’s never seen.

Later, more landscape is used to evoke his mood, when the narrator once again mentions the idea of a “distant world,” in which Shimamura is now part of, even though it is he who is distant.

“Always ready to give himself up to reverie, he could not believe that the mirror floating over the evening scenery and the other snowy mirror were really works of man. They were part of nature, and part of some distant world.
And the room he had only this moment left had become part of that same distant world.”

As Shimamura becomes more acquainted with Komako, we see he is clearly someone not able to give of himself freely, which thus makes it difficult for him to ever love. Shimamura also fails to build a connection with Yuko, Komako’s rival friend, of whom he feels an attraction to. One of the pivotal moments in the book is when Komako is holding Shimamura in her arms, rocking him like a child, and Shimamura goes from calling her “a good girl” to later saying, “you’re a good woman.”

Komako wants to know how she is good, but Shimamura is unable to give her any explanation. At first she laughs the comment off, but then when he tells her she is a good woman, she presses him for his reason why, and still he is unable to give it. While his intentions are meant to be complimentary, within the context, he comes across as condescending and as though he is merely using her for his own pleasure. Upon learning her anger, the narrator notes: “He had not dreamed that she was a woman who would find it necessary to take offense at such a trivial remark, and that very fact lent her an irresistible sadness.”

So clearly Komako did not neatly fit within the outlines of Shimamura’s pre-designed fantasy. Kawabata once again uses landscape to evoke the mood, where the mountains are “more distant each day” and now with the shift of autumn into winter, “The cedars, under a thin coating of snow, rose sheer from the white ground to the sky, each cut off sharply from the rest.”

That this description of being “cut off” immediately follows the emotional clash between Komako and Shimamura is no accident. The novel’s ending is very good and memorable, yet also is left somewhat ambiguous. A fire occurs at the cocoon-warehouse and Komako is the one who bravely runs in to pull Yuko out from the flames.

A greater metaphor is obviously occurring, where Shimamura finds himself useless, unable to offer any real help, for when he tries to move, he is pushed aside by men taking Yuko out from a Komako’s arms. Moments before, despite the fire, he is also still within his fantasy world, marveling over the Milky Way Galaxy that looms above them. Then, when he is pushed aside, he falls backwards and the Milky Way flows “down inside him with a roar.”

In the Introduction, translator Edward G. Seidensticker comments about how we are not even told if Yuko is alive or dead at the end of the novel, but Kawabata gives us some clues: “Her face was strained and desperate, and beneath it, Yoko’s face hung vacantly, as at the moment of the soul’s flight. Komako struggled forward as if she bore her sacrifice, or her punishment.” While the narrator does not make a direct statement about Yuko’s death, it is strongly implied within these passages. But what results is not the important thing. It is more of our chance to witness Shimamura in all his impotence."

Snow Country is more about characterization and observation than action and plot, yet the book does move quickly, despite this. Anyone who complains about literary novels moving “too slowly” I always laugh, because if plot and fast pace is what you want, read a Tom Clancy novel. This is far more introspective and meditative than what you’re going to find, and this wonder we are left with is what makes the novel the great work that it is.

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About Jessica Schneider

  • Tristan Solanas

    In Japanese aesthetics, beauty and sadness are inextricably linked: in all the Japanese arts, beauty IS sadness: beauty is the light given-off by what passes away. Japanese are acutely aware of what they call a-wa-re, the transience of things. Think of the song Mr Watanabe sings in Kurosawa’s IKIRU, or the song the children sing in Kenoshita’s 24 EYES: we are all of us falling cherry blossoms, and if that sounds like a cliche, that’s only because we’ve grown so accustomed to mortality we don’t even notice it anymore: we need the Japanese to wake us up. “All being awake is saying goodbye,” says a modern scholar-poet of Japanese aesthetics. Japanese experience life as a river that is always flowing us away from each other, and, eventually, from life itself. They express their sorrow in films, poems, novels, plays, and traditional music that more than any I’ve ever heard sings the pity of things. The words “sad”, “lonely”, “alone” occur many times in Snow Country. Nature herself is seen as a manifestation of beguiling evanescence. Kawabata’s is an essentially Buddhist sensibility: life is suffering; suffering is caused by desire. The ending of this work, Komako carrying Yoko through the fire—think of the Buddha’s Fire Sermon: “All things are ON FIRE, on fire with lust, on fire with desire”—is beautiful…and SAD, an evocation of the sorrow of life, the ambiguity because instability of all phenomena, including human beings and their longings. This realization grows in some sad lonely souls the seeds of compassion, which is what Komako shows for Yoko, even though she’d been jealous of her.

    I thank Jessica Schneider for helping us rediscover Japanese literature (in her book reviews on her blog), that remembrance of human efflorescence and decay, delicately expressed yet adamantine in its concision and awareness of impermanence.

  • Thanks for your thoughts. There is more to come, but Snow Country is one of them that has continued to stick in my mind.

  • Brecht Isbell

    I had to leave your webpage without reading it. The ad from outfox yammered nonstop, and the speaker icon wouldn’t mute it.