Around the World Reading Challenge: Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

When I go on holiday I love to read a book set in the country I am visiting, and I was especially keen to read the work of a different Japanese author after enjoying many books by Haruki Murakami. Kawabata was awarded the 1968 prize for Nobel Literature and Snow Country, according to the preface in my Kindle edition, is one of two novels which brought him international recognition.

Snow Country is set in a small hot-spring town to which the protagonist, Shimamura, is travelling when the novel opens. It is not altogether clear why he initially made the journey, apart from the authors note that “Shimamura, who lived a life of idleness, found that he tended to lose his honesty with himself, and he frequently went out alone into the mountains to recover something of it.” However, on his first visit to the town we learn that he met a woman, Komako, and his subsequent visits are to see her. We see Shimamura and Komako’s relationship develop over several years, through Komako’s apprenticeship as a geisha. In addition, Shimamura meets a young woman on the train going to the town who catches his attention and her fate is wound up in his.

What struck me most about this novel were the original and often unsettling descriptions, such as this one of Komako’s appearance:

“…the bud of her lips opened and closed smoothly, like a beautiful little circle of leeches.”

Kawabata’s portrayal of the landscape was particularly vivid. The landscape and climate are harsh in the winter; there are few visitors to the hot spring town in winter besides Shimamura:

“The woman’s hair, the glass of the window, the sleeve of his kimono – everything he touched was cold in a way Shimamura had never known before.”

The coldness of the landscape is emphasised throughout the novel, and is also mirrored in Shimamura’s character; he seems just as cold as the climate of the snow country, especially when contrasted to Komako’s warmth. I didn’t find Shimamura at all likeable, and the author purposefully created a distance between him and the reader which seemed to grow as the novel progressed. He seemed to have little regard for Komako’s feelings:

“All of Komako came to him, but it seemed that nothing went out from him to her. He heard in his chest, like snow piling up, the sound of Komako, an echo beating against empty walls.”

Shimamura seems fully aware of his shortcomings with regard to his relationship with Komako and with his wife and children who live in Tokyo and who receive no more than a passing mention. Yet it is clear that Komako feels strongly for him, and Shimamura is left “gazing at his own coldness” in the face of her love.

There were some cultural aspects of this novel that I felt were lost on me, particularly with regards to Komoko becoming a geisha. However, I still found it a fascinating read and it had a powerful ending. It was worth reading for the language alone. I can not finish my review (after the last book I read) without paying my respects to the translator, Edward G. Seidensticker, who must have had a very difficult job!

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