There are some works by great writers that one cannot do without. Likewise, there are some works by those same great writers that will only appeal to a select few. Kawabata’s The Master of Go belongs to the latter category. Although some readers have lumped his novella The Lake into the minor works category, I strongly disagreed. Yet The Master of Go is not a book I recommend even to readers of Japanese literature, but rather, it’s one that readers can put off reading for a long while, maybe even ever.
It is not that The Master of Go is a bad book, but unless one is compelled to learn more about the intricate game Go (a Japanese form of chess) this “novel” (and whether it can really be called a novel is still up for debate, for it is partially based in non-fiction) is a rather stiff and dry read. Characters are thinly sketched and one dimensional and so even if you’re not one drawn to plot driven works, The Master of Go is not filled with great dialogue or observations that the literary lover will find compelling.
Oddly, the back of the novel indicates that Kawabata considered this to be his finest work, and if that is the case, this just shows how more often than not, even a great writer is clueless when it comes to the quality of his own work. Ingmar Bergman is the perfect example—a great filmmaker who could not see past his own limitations, often ripping other great directors like Orson Welles and Michelangelo Antonioni, while praising lesser lights like Steven Spielberg. Leo Tolstoy was an appallingly bad critic of the arts, often overlooking anyone who didn’t agree with his politics. So whether or not Kawabata considered The Master of Go to be his finest work—who cares? It’s not. Not by a long shot.
How do I know this? I’ve only just finished it and already I have forgotten the characters. The book centers on the idea of strategy of a game of Go between an older Master and a younger player. As the “tension” unfolds (and I use the word “tension” very loosely) the game begins to affect their lives and their exterior world—notably their families and friends. In theory, this is not a bad idea for a story, except that the characters are thinly sketched and we don’t really care about them. Also, the game of Go is actually the focus, rather than the exterior lives. Literally there are entire chapters devoted to discussing a singular move and how long it took the Master to make said move. And unless one is a chess or board game enthusiast, again I’ll ask: who cares?
Even those reviewers on Amazon that give this a favorable review, can’t really say why they think it is a good read. Had Kawabata not written it, perhaps the results would be less favorable. Granted, there are far worse books out there, but then by that same token, there are far better—even among Kawabata’s other works. The language too, it not as poetic or psychologically layered as it is in Snow Country or The Sound of the Mountain. Kawabata’s skill resides in his characters and the way he plays out their motives throughout his works. He is great at expressing the underlining aggression that exists between people—all of which is cloaked by kindness. There’s none of that here. The prose is functionary and matter of fact, plot driven, even though the plot is rather dull.
Ironically, this might actually make for a better film, if a director is able to flesh out the characters a bit more. The Master of Go fails not in idea but in execution. Even the biggest Kawabata enthusiasts (such as myself) will tell you to seek out his other works first, and only then move onto The Master of Go if you must, for I do not think it is necessary for understanding his oeuvre. I’m not glad for having read it, but more glad to be able to inform others not to.
It’s usually not good practice for a review to skimp out on a quote, and so I have been sifting, trying to find something quotable: “The Master had put the match together as a work of art. It was as if the work, likened to a painting, were smeared black at the moment of highest tension. That play of black upon white, white upon black, has the intent and takes the form of creative art. It has in it a flow of the spirit and a harmony as of music.”
This as about as poetic as it gets, the rest is just functionary writing. A little more psychology and less strategy would have made The Master of Go something a bit more memorable and for that matter…quotable.