Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata is set in the mountains on the west coast of the main island of Japan. This setting is important to the story. The Introduction to my copy of Snow Country describes the setting:
"In the winter, cold winds blow down from Siberia, pick up moisture over the Japan Sea, and drop it as snow when they strike the mountains of Japan. The west coast of the main island of Japan is probably for its latitude the snowiest region of the world. From December to April or May only the railroads are open, and the snow in the mountains is sometimes as much as fifteen feet deep."
The setting and descriptive passages are often stunningly beautiful. It was this that kept me reading. The setting is cold and remote. The characters follow this pattern and this makes them unreachable and, ultimately, unlikeable. A cold and remote setting has a harsh beauty, but these same characteristics in people are unflattering. Nevertheless, it was this parallel between setting and characters that helped me overlook my dislike and focus on the writing to see the beauty of the whole.
The story takes place at a hot-springs in the snow country. Shimamura is a wealthy idle man who travels to the hot springs without his wife. Komako is one of the hot-springs geisha, a near outcast. There is a sense of wasted and decaying beauty in Snow Country and this comes across in the repeated thoughts of Shimamura about wastedness and in Komako's own impulsive and self destructive behavior. An "indefinable air of loneliness" surrounds Komako, and Shimamura's life seems empty. Shimamura is fascinated with the reflected images of others in mirrors and windows and is drawn to illusion over reality.
Again though, I'm pulled away from the characters themselves by the powerful images that the author creates. Images like that of the rounded snow covered mountain tops turned red by the rising or setting sun. This parallels Komako's white powdered neck curving to her rounded shoulders of red skin that flow and disappear into the wide neck of her kimono. Images of red and white recur throughout the novel and one could write an entire post on these images and metaphor.
I'm guessing there is much I missed for lack of cultural and literary understanding. The recurring themes and images mean something. Metaphor is abundant. The entire novel is reminiscent of haiku that "seek[s] to convey a sudden awareness of beauty by a mating of opposite or incongruous terms … [a fusion of] motion and stillness" and a mingling of the senses. (Quote about haiku from the 1956 Introduction to the book.)
A deep vein of darkness and loneliness runs through Snow Country and this may not be to everyone's liking. Those who have an interest in Japanese literature, those who crave poetic writing, and those who love imagery or strongly visualize when they read will want to read this short novel by one of the masters of Japanese literature.
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|Japanese Literature Challenge 7 hosted by Dolce Bellezza|