Booktrotting in Japan: Snow Country

After beginning the Asian leg of my Booktrotting tour with Tan Twan Eng in Malaysia, I now move on to Nobel Prize-winner Yasunari Kawabata and his novel Snow Country, a tale of unfulfilled love on the slopes of the Japanese Alps.

It was a stern night landscape. The sound of the freezing of snow over the land seemed to roar deep into the earth. As the stars came nearer, the sky retreated deeper and deeper into the night colour. The layers of the Border Range, indistinguishable one from another, cast their heaviness at the skirt of the starry sky in a blackness grave and somber enough to communicate their mass.

Numbed by the idleness of his comfortable city life, wealthy Tokyo socialite Shimamura boards a train to Yuzawa, an isolated mountain resort in Japan’s eastern snow country, on a journey he hopes will restore some meaning to his empty emotions.

He is drawn there by Komako, a geisha he met on a previous trip and one with whom he believes he is in love. The two know that their affair cannot last beyond Shimamura’s stay in Yuzawa: he has a wife and family to return to in Tokyo, whilst Komako’s work binds her to the resort. And yet in that very impermanence they find the freedom to give themselves to each other—even though their awareness of what cannot be becomes a pain that haunts their time together.

View from the Kasumi Room, Yuzawa, Daderot / CC0 1.0

At first it felt a little out of place, reading a book entitled Snow Country in the middle of a May heatwave. But the more I read, the more fitting it seemed.

After all, there is little about Snow Country that isn’t a contradiction in one way or another. It is set in a snowbound town, the main attraction of which is the warmth of its hot springs; it is described as both a work of great beauty and also of waste and desolation; its plot revolves around a love affair made all the more keen by the fact it cannot last.

Another contradiction is that, for a novel with such a complex emotional undercurrent, it’s also incredibly short. Given how Kawabata builds the story around the inner development of his characters, you might expect Snow Country to be a book pushing at its binding with questions, internal monologues, maybe even some stream-of-consciousness narration—and yet instead, it’s capped off at a succinct 175 pages. The dialogue is sparing and the descriptions rarely linger; even the characters themselves are pared down, with Shimamura and Komako often referred to simply as “the man” and “the woman” respectively.

It’s a novel that feels as though it’s had every word weighed and measured until only the most essential are allowed to remain, using a “less is more” philosophy that draws clarity from economy. Its suggestive subtlety is often compared to haiku; the Times Literary Supplement described Kawabata as “using the same delicate, glancing technique [to probe] a complicated human relationship”. (In fact, in 1972 Kawabata reduced Snow Country yet further, reworking the novel into an eleven-page abbreviation titled Gleanings from Snow Country.)

Matsumoto Castle, 663highland / CC-BY-2.5

When reading, I did wonder if the effect of Kawabata’s “light touch” writing style was in part a consequence of his translation into English. It’s inevitable that when a story is taken out of its native tongue its rhythm and lucidity will be somewhat coloured by the process, but the disparity varies from language to language; German, for example, shares very similar roots with English, and so less is lost when translating between the two.

Japanese, however, is vastly different to English—not just in terms of the characters used to write it, but also grammatically and phonetically. Check out any list article of “untranslatable Japanese words” and you can get an idea of the difficulties of producing a faithful English version of a Japanese novel, especially one like Snow Country that explores the subtleties of love, loneliness and desire. And so with Kawabata already well-known for his “brushstroke suggestiveness”, it’s hardly surprising that any English translation of his work will be even more spartan again by virtue of what’s lost in conversion.

But while that sounds like it might be frustrating, or even make Snow Country difficult to follow, that’s actually one of the things I really love about reading fiction in translation. Because although it’s true that the lack of overlap between English and Japanese can at times leave Kawabata’s writing seeming vague and stilted, I feel it’s precisely those “gaps” in the translation that allow his elegance to shine through. It’s as if by reading Snow Country in a language so jarringly different to the original, the brain tries to compensate by looking for the rhythm that should be there, the way each sentence should read—much like how when you listen to a good song on a crappy stereo, your brain will instinctively “fill in” the missing frequencies so you don’t hear it sounding as tinny as it really is. It’s a phenomenon I’ve mostly seen before with Finnish writers like Emmi Itäranta, and also with The Garden of Evening Mists on my last Booktrotting stop, and I’m eager to delve further into Japanese literature to see if that’s systemic to the language rather than just Kawabata’s style.

Tsurunoyu Onsen, Fumiaki Yoshimatsu / CC-BY-SA 2.0

The next stage of my Booktrotting journey takes me eastwards across the Sea of Japan to South Korea, where my guide will be Drifting House, Krys Lee’s short story take on the the Korean-American relationship.

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