Reviewed by Edith LaGraziana
There are loud books that are talked about everywhere and every time, while there are quiet ones just as good or even better that remain in the shelves because they hardly attract attention. Even the works of writers who have been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature are often neglected or forgotten. I don’t know if my choice for today’s review belongs to those hidden gems of literature, but The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata, the Nobel laureate of 1968, surely isn’t on a recent bestselling list. The story revolves around a young woman from Kyoto who leads the ordinary life of the daughter of a dry goods wholesaler in the 1960s. She floats through the year with the cycle of nature and of centuries old festivals welcoming on her way an unknown of twin sister and a young man as her companions.
Yasunari Kawabata (川端 康成) was born in Osaka, Japan, in June 1899. He lost his close family very young and moved to Tokyo in 1917 to attend university where he soon took to writing fiction. In 1921 he published his first short story in the university’s literary magazine which he had revived. After graduation he worked as a newspaper reporter for many years, but never gave up fiction. The short story The Dancing Girl of Izu (伊豆の踊子: 1926) established his fame as a gifted writer in 1926. His most famous and probably most popular novel up to this day is Snow Country (雪国), first published in instalments over a period of twelve years (1935-1947). Other important works from his pen are Thousand Cranes (千羽鶴: 1949-1952), The Sound of the Mountain (山の音: 1949-1954), The Master of Go (名人: 1951-1954), The House of the Sleeping Beauties (眠れる美女: 1961), The Old Capital (古都: 1962), and Beauty and Sadness (美しさと哀しみと: 1964). In 1968 Yasunari Kawabata was the first Japanese author to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Yasunari Kawabata died in Zushi, Kanagawa, Japan, in April 1972. It remains uncertain whether he killed himself or if it was an accident.
Twenty-year-old Chieko lives in The Old Capital of Japan, thus in Kyoto. She has been brought up as the legitimate daughter of the Sadas, Takichiro and Shige, but she knows that they found her as a baby sleeping on a bench under a blossoming cherry tree and yet feels no desire to inquire into her true origins. Chieko has a good life helping her parents and enjoys the pleasures that Kyoto offers with its countless large or small festivals celebrated around the year in the different shrines and temples. In the novel’s opening scene the young woman contemplates the violets blooming in two hollows of the old maple tree in the small garden. She is very fond of the beauty of nature, especially of cherry trees in blossom and of the straight red cedars of Nakagawa District. With her friend Masako she visits the log village Katayama one day and from far they catch a glimpse of a working girl who looks like Chieko, but they don’t give it any importance. During the Gion Festival a few weeks later Chieko goes to the shrine at Otabisho and suddenly finds herself face to face with the girl from Kitayama absorbed in the “seven-turn worship”. They are as like as two peas. The girl’s name is Naeko and as fate would have it she was born a twin, but raised as an only child not knowing what has become of her sister. Although Chieko has no other proof than their striking resemblance, she is at once convinced that she is Naeko’s lost twin sister and ready to introduce her into the Sada family. Naeko, however, is a very humble girl and feels that she shouldn’t cause unnecessary confusion in her sister’s settled life. Naeko has just left the shrine to return home, when the weaver Sosuke Hideo mistakes her for Chieko whom he secretly hopes to make his wife. The shy country girl doesn’t set things right, nor does Chieko who watches them from a distance like the Mizuki brothers Shin’ichi and Ryusuke. Shin’ichi is a school friend of Chieko and like a brother to her, while she hasn’t had much to do with his elder brother Ryusuke yet, but that is about to change little by little.
In The Old Capital life and attitude of the protagonist are tenderly revealed through a series of unspectacular episodes taking place during a period of about one year, starting in spring and ending in winter. The story flows with the cycle of nature and of important festivals that are being celebrated in Kyoto more or less like in the old times – when the city still was the capital of Japan. Yasunari Kawabata doesn’t omit or hide, though, the changes and above all the westernisation that society underwent after World War II until the early 1960s when he wrote the novel. Chieko may wear kimono and obi most of the time, but first of all she is a young Japanese woman with modern habits. Hers is a quiet, even contemplative story without much action although it offers some interesting turns on which another, especially a more recently trained author might have based a dramatic as well as conflict charged plot to ensure the novel’s commercial success. As suits the story’s atmosphere, its style is very simple and flows over with powerful images of a scenery reflecting the protagonist’s frame of mind while at the same time leaving a lot of room for interpretation or imagination respectively. The novel also feels unfinished because it leaves open more than one plot line and makes the reader wonder what may become of the characters. All in all it reminds very much of a short Japanese poem called haiku that (provided that it’s composed according to the strict rules) is necessarily incomplete and ambiguous. This impression corresponds with the author’s idea of fiction writing as an art in the Zen tradition.
Reading The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata has been a very enjoyable experience for me, so much so that I’ve already added other works by this Nobel laureate to my reading list – something that I don’t usually do. If you’re like me interested in Japan and her culture, you’ll find the novel quite attracting and also for those who don’t just seek entertainment or thrill when they choose a book it’s a wonderful read. I recommend it warmly.
This review was first published on Edith's Miscellany.