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Book Review: The Lake by Yasunari Kawabata

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Fantasies run amok in this slim Kawabata novel as the protagonist, Gimpei, revisits the women of his past by way of his remembrances and also while wandering the streets finding women to follow. That’s right, the story of a stalker. He has committed a crime which we do not know the details of, and so now Gimpei had taken to the streets, wandering in search of all types: from his young cousin he desired, to bathhouse girls, to a previous high school love. The Lake dips into all kinds of mystery (and memory), and as usual, Kawabata leaves much unexplained.

The novel opens in a bathhouse, while Gimpei is receiving a massage from a young girl. Everywhere around him he seems to notice the beauty and perfection of women at an unhealthy and obsessive level. The Lake has a very unique structure, for while he is receiving his massage he is reminded of a woman from his past, Miyako. The way Kawabata transitions the memory is very unique, in that, while receiving the massage, Gimpei senses a slapping sensation on his face, which pulls him back to a time when a woman named Miyako slapped him in the face with her handbag. He is then transported to that time when he finds the bag lying in the street, and thus he sifts through the contents, noticing that the purse contains a large sum of money. Readers are then no longer in the bathhouse but on the street, reliving this experience via way of Gimpei’s memory. Then, the scene switches and Gimpei is following another woman, and so on, though the story weaves back and forth between present and past.

Gimpei is a rather sad character (both in the depressed sense and he is also so pathetic that one cannot help but feel sorry for him), and he is pretty much an obsessive and lonely character who despises himself because, well, his feet are ugly. He views all the girls around him as “angels” or objects of perfection, and yet his own inadequacy is weighed against the ugliness of his own feet. Immediately, one is reminded of Kashiwagi, the son of the Zen priest in Yukio Mishima’s novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. In Mishima’s novel, Kashiwagi is club-footed and is unable to engage in sex with an attractive girl because the sight of his own repulsive clubfeet touching her repulses him. Although the two novels are very different in their approach, they share a similarity not only in regards to characters’ obsession but also the obsession with beauty and their ideas of it.

Kawabata addresses the power that goes with beauty in his great and final novel Beauty and Sadness, and in Mishima’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, the character argues that with beauty comes power and therefore to act out this power, one must destroy it. Gimpei too wants to claim this idea of beauty for himself, though he doesn’t seem to have any plans for what to do with it, once he gets it. Gimpei is not an aggressive character, typical of the ones found in a Mishima novel, but he is creepy while he stalks these women around him. His intention isn’t to harm, but just to marvel at them, probably due to the most likely reason—that he is lonely. He often lies to the women he follows, which then only leads to more lies. At one point, the narrator notes:

“Just as Gimpei followed women, so his lies trailed behind him. Perhaps it is the same with crime. A crime, once committed, pursues a person until he repeats it. Bad habits are like that. The first time Gimpei followed a woman led to the second, and so on…”

Weaved into the tale is the story of the woman, Miyako, who lost her handbag. Readers learn that she has sold her youth to an old man, in exchange for money. The crux of the issue is that now, after having lost the money, does anything remain of her? Did anything remain of her in the first place? The dual storyline and how the two characters connect are subtle, organic and yet spare. The novel itself is very tight, and yet it does not feel contrived. Both Miyako and Gimpei share a common element in that they are lonely, so their stories overlap well.

Many reviewers have commented that this is a novel about a stalker, obsession, or even fantasy. And while the book does encompass all these things, it is ultimately a tale about loneliness. Gimpei is, in a sense, the Japanese version of Travis Bickle, save for the fact he is not violent, that is, at least we don’t know if he is. In Taxi Driver, Travis refers to himself as “God’s Lonely Man,” and he is always at a distance from people, even when he tries to get close to them. The difference is that Travis seeks to stand up and “make a change” and hence he commits his act in the end, which ultimately he benefits from. Gimpei doesn’t change (yet neither does Travis ultimately, though he at least tries) and nor would he even know how to go about it. In the end, a woman he brings to a cheap hotel throws a stone at his ankle, calling him a fool. The last scene involves him pulling off his socks and looking at his ugly feet, noticing the redness from the stone’s impact. He is essentially a repulsive, sad loser pulling off his socks and then his story ends.

The title The Lake comes from the lake where Gimpei’s father had at one time drowned. Supposedly rumors existed about his father’s ghost haunting the lake, where footsteps could be heard. It is unclear if his father’s death had been an accident or if it had been murder, but in a sense, it doesn’t really matter because Gimpei is alone. He is without anyone close to him. The Lake is an excellent work, likely one I am going to have to reread again. Kawabata doesn’t ever seem to write anything poorly—every book of his has been worth the read, and The Lake is no different.

 

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