“Of all Japanese fiction, Kawabata’s is the closest to poetry” goes the New York Times Book Review quote. Yasunari Kawabata (1899 – 1972) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968 – the first Japanese writer to do so – but died a handful of years later in a contested incident. Some suggest he committed suicide, others think it was a tragic accident. There doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer, unfortunately.
What remains, however, are his excellent books. The Sound of the Mountain – it was published in short excerpts between 1949 and 1954. It was collated in 1970 and published into English for the first time. Its central theme is dealing with ageing as it takes a detailed look at the fictional Ogata Shingo and his deteriorating relationship with his family – all the while, there’s a distant rumble from a local mountain sending out doom-laden vibes. Intriguing, non?
The Sound of the Mountain
First up, Kawabata’s writing style is quite unusual. It consists of short, sharp sentences – kind of like Ernest Hemingway, but there’s a poetic and lyrical quality to the structure of his prose. It’s almost like he decided to write a haiku, but got drawn into a full novel. It’s elegant and refined – understated, almost.
Anyway, to the story! Otago Shingo is getting old and is worried about his memory playing up. The local mountain that keeps rumbling is proving troubling for him, to the extent he’s associating the sound with death. To add to his issues, his family relationships aren’t going well – he’s unhappy with his wife, his son is promiscuous, and his daughter-in-law makes him uneasy. What is a man to do?
Love and destruction are themes at play here. It’s a carefully paced out novel. There are no explosions, car chases, or random plot developments, this is an author who steadily developed the plot in order to deliver an affecting story. No hyperbole, just a man in complete command of his abilities.
The novel’s measured pace reminds us of the oft told piece of advice for writers: “You have to grab the reader in the first paragraph, or they’ll abandon the book!” Since when? If we’d abandoned a book after an unremarkable opening page, we’d barely have read anything. Take the opening of the Sound of the Mountain:
"Ogata Shingo, his brow slightly furrowed, his lips slightly parted, wore an air of thought. Perhaps to a stranger it would not have appeared so. It might have seemed rather that something had saddened him."
Are readers so fickle and hyperactive they’d refuse to read the rest of this novel as Kawabata didn’t drop any f bombs? Well, we can assure our million strong reader-base this is a novel you won’t want to abandon after its slow start. Why would you? It’s a look at ageing and a consideration of decline. It’s also a psychological study of multi-generational families and the dynamics of how it can work. Failing relationships, the nature of the world, and life itself – it’s all contained within 256 rather sage pages. Indeed.
Above, you can see the ceremony in 1968 when Kawabata picked up his gong for Best Original Screenplay f… sorry, we were thinking about the Oscars. Anyway, Kawabata was actually orphaned when he was four (he grew up in Osaka) and he had to live with his grandparents. He was quite the literary rebel in his youth – in 1924 he and his peers started a literary journal to challenge the old guard writing style of Japan.
After early success with some interesting short stories, he went on to write famed novels such as Snow Country, Thousand Cranes, and the Old Capital. If you’re of a poetic bent, his work may be of considerable interest to you, so perhaps give it a whirl, eh?