This week I am bringing you my review of what can only be described as a bizarre romance – Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country, an apt title for the current season methinks!
Now, for a book that has earned the status of a ‘modern classic’, I was surprised that I’ve never actually heard of this particular novel, let alone the author. But grazing in Waterstones the other day (my haven), I happened to come across it and was taken, firstly, by the fact that it was by a Japanese author (I’m such an Otaku) and to my shame, I’ve only ever read one other novel originating from Japan. Secondly, my curiosity was piqued by the blurb, and thirdly, the beautiful cover took my breath away. I was also interested to see what warranted the label of ‘modern classic’, so I picked it up, added it to my basket which was getting heavier by the minute, and headed to the till before I bought half the shop. I was so captivated in fact that I put another book I was reading aside and started to read this one instead as soon as I got home – The Lonely Londoners could wait!
Apparently this novel is viewed as one of the greatest works of Japanese literature. And yes, for the most part, I have to agree with the New York Herald Tribune when they say it is “a work of beauty and strangeness”. It is undeniably utterly beautiful in the way it is written and its powerful evocation of imagery, even in the mind of someone who has never been to Japan. But I feel the key word here is “strangeness”.
Firstly, there is Shimamura, the main character who is actually a bit of an arsehole. It turns out he has inherited all of his money which explains a great deal – he’s, by his own admission, very lazy. Furthermore, despite having a wife and kids back home in Tokyo, he spends a lot of time at an onsen (bath house) up in a small village in the mountains in the company of a geisha. Her name is Komako and we’ll get to her later… Towards the beginning of the novel, he is really chauvinistic and talks to the women who work at the onsen, the geishas and all other women for that matter, like they’re servants who are there to wait on him hand and foot. And I know that it kind of is the job of a geisha and the owners of an inn to look after their customers, but it’s the way he goes about it. He’s so arrogant and doesn’t seem to give a crap about the fact that he’s being disrespectful of their customs. Basically, he thinks the whole world revolves around him. I’m actually struggling to think of a single good thing about him, to be honest.
Moving on to the geisha in question, Komako is also a bit of a mixed bag. I mean, she’s really strange. Lovely, but strange! One minute she’s coy and distant, and the next she’s throwing herself at Shimamura. To be fair, she’s drunk out of her mind most of the time we encounter her. She is employed to entertain at a lot of parties and obviously helps herself to the odd sake whilst she’s there. Believe me, I’m no stranger to the tricks that alcohol can play on one’s mind… However, when this continues throughout the whole novel, it gets a little tedious! On the other hand, she is a lovely person, is quite amusing, is a complete bookworm and I think she has genuine feelings for Shimamura and isn’t just playing him for more money. After all, he should technically be paying for her company but a lot of the time she comes over without him asking and spends the night free of charge, which is a win win situation for Shimamura I suppose! I also found out after reading this novel that Komako is based on a geisha that Yasunari actually met in real life, so how much of Snow Country is autobiographical, I don’t know, but that’s another thing to think about.
As I have touched on already, the relationship between these two is pretty weird. It’s quite ambiguous as to whether they actually sleep together or not but I personally think they do. And often. To be fair, he claims to have feelings for Komako, but he has a pretty weird way of showing it! He’s aloof, cocky, and spends most of the time sitting back and making obnoxious and belittling observations about her. A lot of the time that they’re together is in his room at the onsen and she can never seem to decide whether she wants to stay or not. She’ll repeatedly tell him that what they’re doing is improper and that she has to leave immediately, but most of the time she doesn’t act upon what she’s saying. It’s really confusing actually, and I don’t blame you if you’re confused reading this, because I’m just as baffled to be honest! Also, to add to this bizarre tryst, Komako is fully aware of the fact that Shimamura is married and repeatedly suggests that Shimamura bring his wife and kids along with him on one of his visits. I don’t know about you but I think it comes across as pretty strange when a man’s mistress is eager to meet his wife and treat her as a friend.
Despite this web of confusion and constant back and forth, not much actually happens in this novel. As I’ve already said, it is written so beautifully and the setting is absolutely enchanting. However, for a novel that’s set over the span of about three years, nothing much significant happens. I know that it’s probably one of those kinds of literature that focuses on the beauty of everyday life and the details that many of us miss amongst our hectic schedules. For me though, this isn’t enough. It had so much potential to be something magnificent, and if the beautiful writing had been combined with something a little more eventful, this would have been a game changer in my books. Even so, I would definitely read this book again and immerse myself in the sheer beauty of it. Hopefully then I’ll also pick up something that I missed first time round.
I know that this has been a pretty ambivalent review, but I would urge that you read it for yourself and form your own opinion. After all, everyone has different tastes, and you’ll probably discover something in it that completely went over my head. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this review nonetheless, and that you consider reading it for yourself! After all, it can’t have been hailed as a modern classic for no reason!
Happy reading, Fledglings!
Love Sarah Xxx