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Yasunari Kawabata: 雪國 (Snow Country)

This novel is not one that many Westerners are going to appreciate. Very little happens in it, till the very end. The sex and even love is only implied. It makes much use of very subtle symbolism. Indeed, only the final tragedy of death is something we could recognise from a typical Western novel. Yet this novel is considered to be one of the finest novels of one of the foremost Japanese novelists, a view I definitely share.

It is set on the West side of Honshu, an area which has a lot of snow in winter because of the cold winds that blow in from the Sea of Japan. It is an excellent ski resort and an area where a lot of Japanese visit for skiing and other winter sports. At the time this novel was written and till much later, this area was essentially visited by men (mainly married men) who went to rest, to ski and for sex. The main male character is Shimamura. He is independently wealthy, a self-styled expert on Western ballet and, of course, married. On the train to the resort, he sees Yoko on the train with a sick man. Her relationship with the sick man – Yukio – is never entirely made clear. At the hotel, a young woman, whom we later learn is Komako, takes him to his room. He (and we) are unsure of what her role is. Shimamura is clearly attracted to her but misunderstanding her role, asks her to get him a geisha. She is initially very reluctant but eventually he gets a young geisha and his sexual desire immediately disappears. Obviously, though this is never stated by Kawabata or Shimamura himself, he is attracted to Komako.

Much of the rest of this short novel is about their affair, though it is not an affair in the Western sense. Komako is indeed a geisha and, as a result, has other clients but whenever she can, she spends time with Shimamura and he is very happy for her to do so. Though clearly sex does take place it is not mentioned, nor are there are any exchanges of endearments or love. Some critics have said that neither party is in love but this, I believe, shows a misunderstanding of the understated nature of Kawabata’s writing. Clearly there is love between them. Shimamura comes back. Komako waits for him and misses him. She turns up at the oddest times, just to be with him. To make matters more complicated there is a second geisha, Yoko, the one whom he had seen on the train with Yukio. Her exact relationship with Yukio is unclear but she, Yoko, has suggested that Yukio was once engaged to Komako and that Komako is working as a geisha to help pay Yukio’s medical bills, something which Komako denies. The relationship between the two geishas is somewhat ambiguous as well, as they seem to be close but, at the same time, seem to be rivals or even enemies. In short, if you are looking for clarity, this is not the novel for you.

But the novel succeeds just because of this understatement and ambiguity. The austere landscape – mountains and deep snow – as well as the changing seasons showing the changing moods only enhance this sense of the poetic beauty of this (to Westerners) odd love story. The fact that nothing really happens till the very end is, for me, a definite positive and not, as some have suggested, a negative. It is a book that deserves reading and re-reading.

Publishing history

First published by Iwanami Shoten Publishing in 1948 (note that it appeared in magazine form in 1935, in book form in 1937 and in substantially revised formed 1948)
First English translation published by Knopf in 1956
Translated by Edward Seidensticker