The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata

Reviewed by Edith LaGraziana

In 1968 Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972) was the first Japanese author to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. His most famous novels Snow Country (雪国: 1935-1947), Thousand Cranes (千羽鶴: 1949-1952), and The Old Capital (古都: 1962) were especially mentioned by the Nobel committee. The work that the author himself considered his best, however, is of a very different kind, namely the chronicle-novel The Master of Go (名人). It’s partly reportage, partly fiction and was first published in instalments between 1951 and 1954. 

The Master of Go recounts a major championship Go match that took place in fourteen sessions from 26 June to 4 December 1938. The adversaries were Shūsai, the twenty-first Master of Go in the Honnimbō succession and until then undefeated, and much younger Kitani Minora, called Otaké in the novel. Yasunari Kawabata himself was present during the match as a reporter for the newspaper Mainichi and also as the first-person-narrator of the novel he appears in this role, though hiding behind the fictitious name Uragami. Knowing nothing about Go and the rules of the game, it is virtually impossible to make head or tail of the moves of black and white stones described and depicted in the included charts, but in the end it isn’t important what the players do on the Go board because the emphasis is on the opposing characters of Shūsai – who gets completely absorbed in the game or any game actually – and Otaké – who merely plays Go according to the rules. The aristocratic tradition incorporated by Shūsai, that was the backbone of Japanese society and at the heart of arts until 1945, is challenged by modern liberalism represented by Otaké. So the Go match can be seen as a symbol for the eternal controversy between old and new or between the Japanese and the Euro-American approach to things, especially in the course of World War II. The game almost immediately turns into nerve-racking tug-of-war that takes its toll on both players as the author shows in a very precise and at the same time poetic language. Hardly two months after the first session sixty-four-year-old Shūshai falls seriously ill. He is hospitalised with a chronic heart condition aggravated by the tension of the match. After a recess of three months the weakened Master of Go can finally return to the Go board and loses his final game as well as his aura of invincibility. Little more than a year later, Shūsai dies and with this event the wheel of the novel comes full circle. 

If you liked this book notice or if you are curious to know what I have to say about another work by the same author, please click here to read my review of The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata here on Read the Nobels.

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