Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Yasunari Kawabata's The Snow Country: someday I wish I could see and feel snow, too


SNOW COUNTRY, arguably Yasunari Kawabata's masterpiece, is about a rich man from Tokyo who travels to an isolated town where the snow can be as high as four to five meters in depth during winter. This man, Shimamura, meets a young provincial geisha, Komako, and falls for her.

The town, which remains unnamed throughout the story, is famous for providing paid female companionship, a staple of the local economy. Men, both single and married, would often travel alone to far away places—in this case, a cold town—to get away from the busy and stressful life in the city and to avail themselves of such woman comforts.

The novel begins with a train ride. Shimamura sees a beautiful lady traveling with a sick man. He cannot keep his eyes off her reflection in the glass. Her name is Yoko. He keeps thinking of her.

During this vacation, the married Shimamura meets Komako. She is a rural geisha. Unlike their city counterparts, geishas in provincial places at the time were in the same social class as prostitutes. They meet in the famous hot springs. She visits him in his room. They walk around town together. 

Shimamura and Komako become fond of each other, but they have incompatible stations in society. Another complication of their so-called love affair is that Shimamura can't help thinking about Yoko even if he is with Komako.

In Snow Country, the conversations read like haikus. The novel is replete with symbolism. It would do a reader well to go through the book slowly. Kawabata likes to imply rather than state, which means the reader must fill in the gaps with his imagination. So many things are left unsaid.

Kawabata's prose sounds so peaceful and quiet and awfully depressing. The theme of mono no aware, literally the "pathos of things" or "the awareness of impermanence and the gentle sadness of passing," is palpable. The town he paints sounds so quiet and the landscape so frozen I felt cold even in this tropical Manila heat.

What I wrote about the Yasunari Kawabata's collection of short stories (The Dancing Girl of Izu) still rings true for this novel: that  he can weave his tale with the fewest words possible without compromising, even for a bit, the complexity and depth of his ideas.

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