Saturday, February 18, 2006

Winter Storm Warming

Inspired by a January New York Times article about Japan's snow country and my recent read of Banana Yoshimoto's Hardboiled & Hard Luck, I picked up an old paperback copy of Yasunari Kawabata's Snow Country. Winner of the Novel Prize for Literature in 1968, the short novel focuses on experiences on the west coast of Japan's main island, reportedly the "snowiest region in the world."

An older businessmas leaves the comforts of his home and family to journey to the snow country, where he partakes in natural hot spring baths and the pleasures of a young geisha named Komako. Over the course of several visits and trysts, the two fall into a love of sorts, and their bittersweet pairings and partings form the centerpiece of the work of fiction.

With several references to characters seeing themselves as players in an "old, romantic tale," the novel settles into a pace out of time, carrying overtones of isolation -- communicated not just through the story's geographical setting but in the emotional detachment of the people in the narrative. Even the protagonist distances himself from his chosen professional focus: Occidental ballet. And similar to Yoshimoto's new book, there are references to black stones, albeit without the supernatural elements.

In the end, the two main characters cannot bear to be apart -- yet they cannot remain together. Snow Country is a perfect winter read because of its sadness, simplicity, and stark lyricism. A wonderful counterpart to the Klondike-based fiction of Jack London. In those stories, the vehicle that transports characters into the wild is a dog sled. In Kawabata's Snow Country, it is the train.

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