Yasunari Kawabata: The Old Capital
The most quintessentially Japanese author I’ve read has to be Yasunari Kawabata. Kawabata employs a precision of language that has an elegant understated beauty. An economy of words that evokes an ancient Japanese ink and brush painting, rather than the Jackson Pollock style explosion of language of somebody like Thomas Pynchon. Allied to this, the writing has the slow, deliberate pacing of the Japanese tea ceremony, amplifying the impression that each word carries added meaning.
When Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, three of his novels were cited: Snow Country, Thousand Cranes and The Old Capital. Although Kawabata apparently referred to The Old Capital as his “abnormal product”, I personally find his writing so unique that any such differences between books are lost in my overall admiration for his craft.
The Old Capital is set in post-war Kyoto, a city of many traditional festivals but also one where western innovations were first adopted. Truly a place in Japan were old meets new, and one that was indeed the old capital of the country.
That meeting of tradition and modernity is one of the central themes to The Old Capital, a story centring on Chieko, the adopted daughter of local shopkeepers. Since childhood, Chieko has known that she was a foundling, abandoned as an infant but found and raised by her adopted parents as their own child.
Chieko discovered the violets flowering on the trunk of the old maple tree. “Ah. They’ve bloomed again this year,” she said as she encountered the gentleness of spring.
The maple was rather large for such a small garden in the city; the trunk was larger around than Chieko’s waist. But this ancient tree with its coarse moss-covered bark was not the sort of thing one should compare with a girl’s innocent body.
Chieko’s existence is pampered, but also closeted, by the tradition that surrounds – leading her to prefer kimono’s of her fathers design to the western clothes that are becoming increasingly popular amongst her contemporaries. And it is her father, Takichiro, who moulds the nature of Chieko’s life, as she is expected to display self-contained restraint and a dutiful deference to his wishes and the needs of their family. Takichiro, of course, faces no such constraints, feeling free to plan their future without consultation, pursue relationships with Geisha ‘s of his daughter’s age and even alluding to youthful experimentation with narcotics.
Sosuke examined the design for a moment.
“Mmm, it’s excellent. The colour harmony…fine. You’ve never drawn anything so novel before. Still, it’s restrained. Weaving it will be difficult. But we’ll put our hearts into it and give it a try. The design shows your daughter’s respect for her parents and her parents’ affection for their daughter.”
“Thank you. Nowadays people would be quick to use an English word like ‘idea’ or ‘sense’ to describe it. Even colours are now referred to in faddish Western terms.”
“Those aren’t high-quality goods.”
“I hate it that Western words have come into such use. Haven’t there been splendid colours in Japan since ancient times?”
“Even black has various subtle shades,” Sosuke nodded.
It is when Chieko accidentally meets her twin sister Naeko – a sibling she never knew existed – that she learns what happened to her biological family. A disturbing truth that reveals how differently her life’s path could have been. One far removed from the comfortable familiarity of her adopted family. As Chieko attempts to integrate Naeko back into her life, we see the affect this has on both her family and friends.
As is so often with Kawabata’s books, the story is as paired back as the prose, with more importance placed on clarity of characterisation than wild plot twists. But it is this, very Japanese, understated style of writing which makes his work not only intriguing, but also at times quite perplexing. In particular the undercurrent of emotions and restrained reactions of the characters could be misinterpreted as being almost clinical for those not fully conversant with Japanese society. The most obvious example being a scene when Chieko’s father strikes a young man for the merest perceived verbal slight, with the blow accepted with barely a blink of the eye. Try that in some of the places I’ve lived and you wouldn’t find a body part left, large enough to make a formal identification. Similarly, Chieko’s passive acceptance of her position in life is in stark contrast to the attitudes of a modern western woman. But the joy of Kawabata is that he is different, and so is the society he documents. That difference may confuse, but it can also educate and certainly should be enjoyed.
The Old Capital is a melancholy, delicate novel, with as much importance placed on what remains unsaid as what is revealed. It is a book well worth reading, but one who’s full meaning remains as elusive to this Westerner as the nature of the Japanese temperament itself.