Yasunari Kawabata: 名人 (The Master of Go)
This was apparently Kawabata’s favourite of his own novels. It is highly autobiographical, giving a very thinly disguised account of a 1938 Go match, which Kawabata wrote about as a newspaper reporter. While it helps to know something about the game, it is by no means essential. Kawabata both gives graphical representations of the progress of the game (which lasts six months) as well as explaining what is going on.
We learn, from the very first sentence, that the Master, Shusai Honnimbo, will die not long after the game. The title, at least in those days, was more honorary. There was no formal championship (as in chess, which Kawabata points out) and, indeed Shusai had been challenged only a few times. The match also moves around, played in different locations for no obvious (to me) reason. Both players suffer from ill health and, indeed, the game is postponed for three months when Shusai is taken ill, an illness which ultimately kill him. Otaké, the challenger, even gets a slight postponement when his baby is ill.
Much of the novel is about the to and fro of the game and the very long time before each player makes his move, particularly Otaké. But it is also, to a certain degree about the gamesmanship and the character of the two men, particularly Shusai. The gamesmanship, by our standards, is very minor. However, Shusai, as the Master, expects to be granted certain favours, which he does not always get, and both he and Otaké have mild tantrums, threatening to walk out of the match, if they do not get their own way. Both men are, of course, driven – they must be to have reached this level – but this is, of course, treated in a very low key way by Kawabata. Shusai, when he is not playing, often indulges in other games, such as chess, billiards and renju, feeling the need to keep his mind occupied in that way.
Much more happens in this novel than in his other novels, even if that much more is the back and forth of the game, which is deceptively simple but actually very complex. We know the result from the beginning and we know the effect it will have on Shusai but Kawabata still keeps us engrossed without moving too far away from his normal low key style.
First published in magazine form in 1951; in book form by Shinchosha in 1954
First English translation published by Knopf in 1972
Translated by Edward Seidensticker