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Book Review: The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata

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Yasunari Kawabata is known for the emotional intricacy and subtlety of his work, and in that regard, The Old Capital is no different. What separates Kawabata’s work from that of other Japanese writers are the insightful observations — what one notices are the very small details, and thus, how the  the scene evokes emotion. Descriptions of the passing vistas in Snow Country evoke internal isolation and pathos, while the rumblings of a nearby mountain introduce feelings of death in The Sound of the Mountain. It is this shift from the external to the internal that makes Kawabata the distinct and intricate writer he is, and someone separate from his peers.

His novels also often end on a metaphor, or an image that the reader is left with, as can be easily recalled in works like Beauty and Sadness, Snow Country and The Lake. It has been well over a year since I read Snow Country, and I can still recall the fire scene at the end of the novel, and how it resonates even now. Yet, sadly, this is my final Kawabata novel review, as the only work of his that remains unread is a short story collection.

The Old Capital refers to Kyoto. It is certainly a good book, but falls slightly below some of the earlier titles mentioned. The tale focuses on Chieko, a young girl whose father is a kimono designer. The early parts are some of the most fascinating, where readers are given glimpses of the father-daughter relationship and how they go about their lives. Here is an example of an insightful observation Chieko makes, which is typical of many Kawabata characters. Chieko, who enjoys raising bell crickets in a jar, notes:

“The crickets spent their entire lives in a jar; it was the whole world to them. Chieko had heard the ancient Chinese legend of a ‘universe in a jar’ in which there was a palace in a vessel filled with fine wine and delicacies from both land and sea. Isolated from the vulgar world, it was a separate realm, an enchanted land. The story was one of many such legends of wizards and magic.
Of course the bell crickets had not entered the jar in order to renounce the world. Perhaps they did not realize where they were, so they went on living.”

Chieko has been raised to believe that her parents kidnapped her, albeit as the narrative progresses, she actually learns that she was an abandoned baby. The metaphor of the bell crickets becomes more obvious because Chieko is very much like them in the way they are observed in the quote above.

This example is how Kawabata differs from lesser writers — he does not explain what his metaphors mean, but he allows them to thrive on their own. Eventually, Chieko meets her twin sister and begins to question her own identity, in addition to her past. At times, the two engage in poetic, dream-like dialogue that carries deeper resonance upon multiple reads.

Likewise, earlier exchanges between Chieko and her mother are equally as poetic, particularly when Chieko is being told of her natural mother. The scene is spare and powerful, ending with Chieko calling out to her mother in the next room, while undoing her hair and looking in the mirror. The chapter ends: “‘Mother,’ Chieko called to the next room. Restless thoughts clouded her voice.”

While in the literal sense she is calling her mother in the next room, readers know what she is thinking — her thoughts return to the natural mother she’s just been informed of, so who is she really calling? Perhaps both. It is this little intricacy that gives Kawabata’s work its distinction, and is very easy to overlook, thus Kawabata is a novelist that begs for rereading.

The ending is typical Kawabata too, with an image of the two sisters parting — dreamlike while the world is still shrouded in sleep, the meaning resides in the use of words — vanishing as fast as morning snow melting into strands of hair:

“A few delicate snowflakes fell on Chieko’s hair, then vanished. The town was as it should be, still silent in sleep.”

The Old Capital is quite a good novel — one that I would place beside Thousand Cranes. It is easily a book that a shallow reader could claim, “nothing happens.”

What keeps me from ranking The Old Capital as one of Kawabata’s best is that his other novels are a bit more intricate, or perhaps they just have thrived in my memory longer. Yet, for most, Kawabata will be an acquired taste. He offers narrative techniques that can serve as powerful instruction for writers and they contain a flavor that rewards the intelligent reader.

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About Jessica Schneider

  • Martin Holman

    Glad you enjoyed The Old Capital. As the translator, I am always happy when someone appreciates Kawabata’s (and my) work.