July/August 2011

What the Swedes Read

A Reader Makes His Way Through One Book By Each Nobel Laureate

by Daniel Handler
  • LAUREATE: Yasunari Kawabata (1968, Japan)
  • BOOK READ: The Old Capital, trans. J. Martin Holman

All great books are strange. In fact, strange might be the only thing all great books have in common. The strangeness can spring up from any place in the language or the style, in the story if there is one or the premise, but there’s always going to be the shaky thrill of things not going the way you thought they were going to go, the delicious contrariness of a book that shows you a door to enter, and then tosses you in through a window.

Before I read Yasunari Kawabata, I checked what the prize-givers had to say about his work. I was looking for strangeness, because I’ve read quite a bit of Japanese fiction, and I thought I knew what I liked: the new stuff. The rush and the pop of Tokyo, the neon dreams and the crammed subways—I love all that. The tea ceremonies and the kimonos and the cherry blossoms of the older Japanese novels, not so much. Those books were foreign, but they weren’t strange, and I found something off-putting about the cultish adoration of certain traditional Japanese writers by Western readers. It felt like those little Zen rock gardens some people put on their desks, with a little rake to mimic the actions of thousands of years of Buddhist tradition. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with it. But my copy of The Old Capital has cherry blossoms on the cover. And a girl in a kimono. With one of those little fans. You know?

There’s an uneasy touch of that whatever that is, exactly in the Nobel presentation statement:

With Kawabata, Japan enters the circle of literary Nobel Prize–winners for the first time. Essential to the forming of the decision is the fact that, as a writer, he imparts a moral-esthetic cultural awareness with unique artistry, thereby, in his way, contributing to the spiritual bridge-building between East and West.

It’s high praise, but it feels a bit like the welcoming speech for the first black guy at the country club. I was afraid that Kawabata’s prize was honoring the bridge-building, instead of the writing, and that what had seemed strange about The Old Capitalits Japanese-ness would not be enough for a reader who does not greet the sight of a futon in someone’s room as a sign of wisdom.

Spoiler alert for this and all future columns: I’m wrong all the time.

The Old Capital is set in Kyoto at the end of the American occupation, and running through the novel is an elegiac regard for many of the old traditions and institutions that are about to change forever. There are kimonos and obis, ceremonies and festivals, tofu prepared every which way. Kawabata’s prose is simple, often explanatory the novel was written in 1962, and approaches its setting and subject matter as if the reader has long forgotten the traditions but the straightforward tone is a trick. The novel begins like a light social drama Sense and Sensibility, say when Chieko is allowed by her parents to visit a nearby temple with a young man named Shin’ichi. Then:

The lights were burning in town, leaving a faint glow.

Chieko leaned against the railing and gazed toward the west. She seemed to have forgotten about Shin’ichi. He drew near her.

“Shin’ichi. I was an abandoned child, a foundling,” Chieko spoke abruptly.

“An abandoned child?”

“Yes.”

Shin’ichi puzzled over whether the words “abandoned child” had some emotional meaning.

This is strange. The style is plain, but it’s anything but plain what’s going on.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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