Ah Japan – land of haiku, of dispossessed samurai, of cherry blossom and of melancholy. Or of robots and manga and tentacle monsters, depends what you’re into.
I was feeling the need for some pristine writing, some neat phrases and sharp syntax, so I have just finished reading Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata. I recommend a foray into Japanese literature as it is clearly distinct from Western literature in the style and the feel of the books. Many novels , including this one, do consider the themes of Westernization and modernization in Japan, which was very consciously part of Japanese culture from the 1860s on (I studied Japanese history at University, hands up who feels sad for Okinawa). Yasunari Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, but this is the first of his books I had read, and it delivered.
I read Japanese writing when I am feeling vaguely melancholy, in a gazing-into-the-middle-distance, Grandmother Willow sort of way, and in Snow Country I found the right notes of doom and a sort of helplessness before fate that I have met before in Japanese literature. A nice hopeless romance, and if the characters can find time to stand on mountain sides and consider nature before someone dies tragically that is a strong plus.
Snow Country is set in a rural Japanese mountain village, famous for its hot springs. The main character, Shimamura, is a married man from Tokyo and he nicely catches the image of the Westernised city dweller; he is an expert in Western ballet, but he is fascinated by the traditional methods of bleaching cloth in the mountains, by the remote, rural world of the village, and by one particular geisha, Komako, with whom he has a fairly open affair in the little village.
That the relationship can never go anywhere is clear from the start, and to modern eyes at least Shimamura is not a deeply sympathetic character. Often he barely seems to like poor Komako, who is frequently drunk, working at parties and then sneaking into Shimamura’s room afterwards, and he is fascinated by another girl whose enigmatic presence book-ends the story. He first sees Yoko on the train to the village, and she is the star of the last scene.
There is something deeply compelling in the lingering descriptions of the snowy scenes, of the hotel it is largely set in and of the characters. For a Western audience there is a particular interest in the descriptions of the most basic items of furniture and clothing or of the geisha lifestyle. It is a lovingly crafted, elegant short work, and it is the fresh mountain air of the mind to eyes that have read ever so many job descriptions of late. It is not an action-packed thrill ride, but rather a slow study in inevitability.
If you are luxuriating in Snow Country it might seem like a warming, heartening red wine would be the way to go, but I personally recommend a different route, one of a subtle sympathy with snow and bare-edged mountains. I suggest a riesling, a crisp, fresh white wine (a trip to google also tells me it is a good pairing with fish and Japanese food, so my choice seems vindicated), with a bite that will keep you awake and floating through the snow country with Shimamura, even if it’s raining and grey outside. Kanpai!
Book: Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata
Pair with: Riesling