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Yasunari Kawabata: 山の音 (The Sound of the Mountain)

This is Kawabata’s old man novel, concerned as it is with age and aging, even if Kawabata was only fifty-three when he wrote it and was to write many other fine novels after it. The story concerns Shingo Ogata, who is now in his sixties and feeling his age. The signs of aging are everywhere and Kawabata does not hold back – white hair, spitting up blood, schoolfriends of his age having a variety of ailments and, in several cases, dying, suddenly forgetting how to knot his tie and his wife, who had always seemed older, now appearing younger than he. There are even symbols of it, with the cherry tree in the garden prematurely dying. In short, death is everywhere. In particular, Shingo hears the sound of the mountain, which is, for him, a clear sign of impending death.

Shingo is married to Yasuko. She is a year older than he is. Their marriage is, like many marriages, one where they tolerate one another but they do not appear very close. They have two children. Shuichi, their son, who works with Shingo, is married to Kikuko. Shuichi and Kikuko do not have any children, though Kikuko comes from a very fertile family. Shingo and Yasuko have a daughter, Fusako, married to Aihara, with two children. Both marriages are troubled. Shingo finds out early on that Shuichi is having an affair and the affair is confirmed both by Shingo’s secretary, Eiko Tanizaki, and then by Shuichi himself. It is unclear whether Kikuko knows but she does know that Shuichi often comes home late and drunk. Early in the book Fusako leaves Aihara and comes to live with her parents. It seems that Aihara is a drug dealer. Shingo tolerates his children but clearly is not very close to them. Much of the book is about his warm feeling for his daughter-in-law, who is loving and caring and looks after her father-in-law, while tolerating her husband’s misbehaviour. Fusako is well aware of her father’s relationship with Kikuko and is jealous.

The book follows Shingo’s ongoing relationship with Kikuko. They go out together – to the park, to dinner. He tries to end Shuichi’s relationship with his girlfriend but matters become more complicated when both she and Kikuko become pregnant. He always tries to get up early to spend time with Kikuko. While nothing sexual happens, it is certainly implied and is noticed by both his wife and daughter (though not by his son). As this is Kawabata, much of what happens is implied but, as always, he does it very well and the subtle changes in relationships – with Kikuko, with Yasuko, with Shuichi and with Eiko – are very well done, even as we watch him as he grows old and feels it. It is definitely one of his best books.

Publishing history

First published by Chikuma Shomo in 1952
First English translation published by Knopf in 1970