Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata – Book Review

Shimamura, an Edokko*, has an ongoing affair in Snow Country with a rural geisha, Komako. But this isn’t an illicit love story nor the story of two Japans clashing. This is the story of the anamnesis of man’s place in the Universe.

Published as a whole in 1948, the book follows Shimamura, a Tokyo expert on Western ballet. He is what we might call a dilettante, because he has never actually seen a Western ballet show, although he is a respected authority on the matter. Married with kids, he starts an affair with a rural geisha, Komako, whom he visits in Snow Country, an unnamed mountain village famous for his hot water springs, and heavy winters. When the book opens, we see him arriving for what will be his last visit to Komako.

On the whole, this book can hardly be resumed because its eerie narrative won’t allow it. But more importantly, its narrative rests on metaphors and allegories that don’t hit you until you reach the very end.

On the surface, it’s the story of a city man having an affair with a young geisha, in a village. He visits her every year and he is both, fascinated and repelled by her. Not because she is a rural geisha, which makes her a little more than a prostitute, but because her manners and education are far from those of city geishas. Yes, he is arrogant.

Moreso, Shimamura is an ignorant arrogant because he fails to see that Komako is truly in love with him. He labels her behaviour as strange, without trying to understand her. She bahaves as a woman unhappily in love, trapped between her job and chores, and her desire to spend every minute with her lover, while he is there.

The book may seem simplistic and chaotic if you fail to interpret the hints. For example, while Shimamura reminisces, we see how after their first year together, he notices how her body has changed. Corroborated with other small hints, it’s quite possible she had a baby, and maybe now, after their four-year affair, even has more than one. Maybe his, maybe not, but he never really questions the consequences of his own actions.

His fascination with Yoko is another key to understand this story. Yoko is Komako’s friend whom Shimamura meets on the train. From the start, he is fascinated with her manners and the strange twinkle in her eyes. Yoko lives with Komako in the room previously assigned to the cotton worms, and she urges Shimamura to be kind to Komako. On the path to his awakening, Yoko is just a tool. Her manners turn out to be just her, training to be a nurse, and her faith will be the cosmic punch in the face the Universe has sent his and Komako’s way.

Yoko stands on the ground between Shimamura and Komako, caught up between them both. And by that, Yoko’s character arc, her story, is Kawabata’s way of criticizing both, the modern and the old Japan.

“(…)you couldn’t tell if she was carrying her victim or her punishment”

The book is brilliant in its seemless use of various techniques:

  • the juxtaposition: Shimamura represents a modern, West-obsessed, rigid Japan, while Komako represents a traditional Japan, closer to nature and the Universe that ”just wants to live”. They also represent two different people, with Shimamura being the kind of person that is self-serving, arrogant and spiritually lost, while Komako is the kind of person that faces life as it comes.
  • flexible time flow: we go back and forth in time as Shimamura reminisces, and it’s easy to lose track of these shifts. The bigger point being that the past can teach us many things, if we look carefully. Shimamura doesn’t.
  • foreshadowing: for example, Yoko’s twinkle.
  • psychological narrative structure: nothing exists in the novel outside of Shimamura’s counsciousness.
  • a puzzle of hints: certain events are merely hinted thoughout the book, open to interpretation and more obvious if you piece them together – Komako might be a mother, what happens when client get geishas drunk, what happens in the hot springs etc.
  • fire as a metamorphosis trigger.
  • the metaphor: Shimamura’s journey is a metaphor of any man’s uncounscious quest for a place in the Universe. More than uncounscious, it’s an unwanted quest that the Universe pushes on him. Kawabata uses other small metaphors – for example, Yoko sleeps in the cotton worms’ room, and in the story, she is also a tool for Shimamura’s journey, just like cotton worms are a tool for men.

The book ends with Shimamura’s epiphany, and it becomes quite clear it was all about his spiritual journey. But while on this path, I disliked how all the other characters were just tools for his awakening. I especially disliked the littleness of Yoko’s life, in the bigger picture. And I disliked Shimamura but maybe that was the point: we were all meant to dislike him because a lost man has no light in him.

Overall, Snow Country is eerie, delicate, uncomfortable, heartbreaking, and brilliant. Its narrative is hard to follow, its metaphor is worth it. Not to read with a broken heart. To read when you’ve lost perspective on your life.

* Edokko: someone that was born, raised and lives in Tokyo, Japan, from Tokyo’s old name, Edo (it was renamed Tokyo in 1868).

My copy: Yasunari Kawabata. Țara zăpezilor, editura Humanitas, București, 2008.

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