Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata (Alfred A Knopf, 1956)
This incredibly short novel is a mere one hundred and twenty pages yet it packs in striking characterisation, vivid setting and sophisticated themes nonetheless.
Yasunari Kawabata became the first Japanese author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature when he received the award in 1968 after achieving international recognition with Snow Country (1956) and Thousand Cranes (1959). Snow Country is often described as his masterpiece. He died in 1972 at the age of 72.
As Snow Country opens, Shimamura is returning to a village in the mountains he has visited before for rest and recuperation. He is wealthy and cultured, doesn't work but devotes himself to the intellectual and leaves his wife and children behind to stay at one of the touristy inns and enjoy himself with geishas.
On the train he sees a young woman, Yoko, nursing a sick young man whose mother lives in the village. He is deeply moved by her kindness. The young man is coming home to die, and his fiancée Komako is now a geisha whom Shimamura slept with during a previous visit.
In the intervening months Shimamura's ordered and comfortable life has gone on unchanged. However, Komako has finished her training as a geisha and entered into a bonded contract where she will have to work out a certain number of years to repay the loan that paid for her training. If she can earn more money to repay it faster she will be able to leave service as a geisha more quickly.
Komako exhibits trauma behaviour, she becomes erratic and sometimes aggressive towards Shimamura, who is one of her clients, and drinks heavily. After Komako's fiancé died, she has a tense relationship with Yoko, who resents the young man's feelings for the geisha and thinks that Komako didn't love him even though she became a geisha to pay his medical bills.
Yasunari Kawabata's novel is incredibly powerful. The description of the old fashioned and poor mountain village that receives tourists who travel there by modern train provides a vivid tension between rural and urban, rich and poor, modern and traditional Japan. Images abound of the mechanical versus working by hand, for instance in the plough used to clear the snow juxtaposed with clearing the ancient roofs by hand.
Shimamura is sophisticated and educated, whereas Komako's literary and musical abilities have come through the geisha system of training. His learning is there for his own enjoyment, since he doesn't work; hers is for the entertainment of her clients, though she is very proud of her achievements.
The relationship between Yoko and Komako was fascinating. Jealousy over the young man who died young lies at the heart of the tension between them. They are never really able to understand each other, and there is quite a bit of aggression from Yoko as the novel unfolds. However, there are also touching moments of sincerity, for instance when Yoko asks Shimamura to be kind to Komako.
However, it is the relationship between rich client and younger geisha that forms the cornerstone of Snow Country. Shimamura is the point-of-view character throughout. There is much to be said in a very short novel for only showing the story through one person. His lack of work ethic, spoilt lifestyle and lack of fidelity to the unnamed wife who never appears in the novel are a product of his social position, gender and the age in which he lived. I liked him for his intellectual nature and his cultural focus, and because he was kind to, if unobservant around, Komako. He was selfish, to be sure, but he wasn't weak.
I have read Snow Country a number of times, and I have always been troubled by the fact that the story of a young woman, displaying trauma behaviours in the form of anger and alcohol dependency, is told via the eyes of one of her clients. I longed to have the story told by Komako and also by Yoko, who herself yearns to escape poverty and live in Tokyo.
The limited economic opportunity available to women from poor backgrounds was laid bare in this sensitive novel, and it is in every way a superb literary achievement, but my discomfort on reading Snow Country has only increased with the years.
Thank you for reading my review of Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata.The comments section is open. I'll be back on Friday.
If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my review of Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri here.