Yasunari Kawabatha is so little known in Sri Lanka (at least when compared to European authors), even though he is regarded by many as the greatest 20th century Japanese writer, and was the first Japanese author to win the Nobel Prize for literature back in 1962, eclipsing even the enigmatic, brilliant Yukio Mishima.
Though his books are regarded as difficult to translate, several of his novels and several stories have been translated into English, and at least one was translated into Sinhala. “Snow Country” and “Old Capital” are perhaps his best known works.
Kawabatha was born in 1899 at Osaka. He was the son of a physician. Having lost both parents while sill a child, he was brought up by a blind, ailing grandfather in a remote part of Japan. The loneliness of this existence had a profound effect on his outlook and imagination.
"Though his books are regarded as difficult to translate, several of his novels and several stories have been translated into English, and at least one was translated into Sinhala. “Snow Country” and “Old Capital” are perhaps his best known works"
Kawabatha was a founding member of Bungei Jidai, a new movement in modern Japanese literature. “Izu Dancer,” his first short story, was published in 1927. From the start, Kawabatha struck a balance between modern Western realism and classical Japanese literature. His writing has been compared to traditional Japanese painting, both fragile and melancholy.
But it’s the modern elements in his work which can startle the reader. Some of it can only be described as surreal, as we understand the term in 20th century painting by artists such as Salvador Dali. The story titled ‘One Arm,’ in his work ‘House of the Sleeping Beauties’, a young girl gives her right arm to the narrator.
The removal of the girl’s arm isn’t described as a bloody, violent act involving sharp instruments. The man takes it home with him and spends the night with it – actually, it becomes his own right arm he replaces his own with the girl’s.
This sort of imagery can only be described as surreal, as Surrealism as an artistic movement dealt with dreams. When I first these stories many years ago, I interpreted them in a literal manner. Though I was familiar with surrealist paintings by then, and could make the connection, I failed to see much more than ‘clever story telling’ at the time, and my interpretation of ‘House of the Sleeping Beauties’ was quite literal, missing altogether the delicately nuanced psychological layers it gives forth.
But Kawabatha’s writing goes well beyond startling imagery. His writing is deeply philosophical, with his protagonists looking into their past lives and trying to make sense of past and present as a total space-time conundrum of existence. In the story Birds and Beasts, the narrator is very fond of his pet birds and beasts. He prefers their company to that of people, though one would not exactly describe him as a misanthrope. His deep affection for his creatures allows him to see beauty in all living things.
‘House of the Sleeping Beauties’ is more than a collection of short stories. The title story itself is more a novella than a short story. Eguchi, the narrator, is a very old man (‘old and ugly’) who frequents a very unusual sort of brothel – it’s a place where elderly men, in lieu of having sex, spend a night with drugged, unconscious young women. According to house rules, they are forbidden from touching their sleeping partners for the night.
From this unreal setting (clearly, this brothel is a metaphor for something else), Kawabatha draws upon philosophical associations not normally associated with erotic imagery. Eguchi, touched by his sleeping partner’s beauty, recalls his womanizing days and the inexorable advance of old age. But the author goes beyond our routine concerns, and touches greater concerns. For example, visits to the House of Sleeping Beauties isn’t an innocent past time for Eguchi. He concludes that the act of lying next to a defenseless young woman could be evil.
“Were not the longing of sad old men for the unfinished dream, the regret for the days lost without ever being had, concealed in the secret of this house?” Kawabatha writes. “Eguchi had thought before that girls who did not awaken were ageless freedom for old men. Asleep and unspeaking, they spoke as the old men wished.”
Obviously, readers who are more used realistic descriptions and day-to-day situations would find Kawabatha ‘difficult.’ He has to be approached with a different mindset, in the same way we approach dreams and fantasies, those invisible realms which only those really good artists can capture effectively enough for posterity and our consumption.