Just over a year ago, Penguin released four books by Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata in their Modern Classics editions. I originally pre-ordered two (Snow Country and Thousand Cranes) and, of course, eventually ended up buying the other two anyway – Beauty and Sadness and, today’s offering, The Sound of the Mountain. Having also read The Master of Go, this then was my fifth book by the old master and yet…
…If I’m honest, nothing has really hit the spot so far. Kawabata is the one J-Lit writer I’ve never quite got, not in the way I’ve instantly loved Natsume Soseki
, Kenzaburo Oe
or Yukio Mishima
. Perhaps it’s because of the more oblique approach of his works; it might be because of the style of the translator (Howard Hibbett for Beauty and Sadness
, Edward Seidensticker for all the others); perhaps I just hadn’t found the right book yet. Luckily, it appears that with Kawabata it’s not third, but fifth time lucky…
The Sound of the Mountain is a slow-moving story centring on Shingo Ogata, a businessman in his sixties. Commuting from his Kamakura home every day to his Tokyo office, Shingo simply wants a quiet life, time to reflect and enjoy the years remaining to him and his wife Yasuko. Sadly, it appears that a quiet life is not to be his lot. His son, Shuichi, who (along with his wife) lives with his parents, is having an affair out in Tokyo, and if that is not enough, one day Shingo’s daughter, Fusako, arrives with her two children in tow, her marriage evidently on the rocks.
As head of the household, the family looks to Shingo to intervene in both cases, but the old man (despite his affection for his daughter-in-law) decides to let matters take their course, hoping that time will resolves events for him. Unfortunately, his procrastination actually makes everything much worse than they already were. For a man slowly starting the gradual slide into senility, it’s all too much to take…
Right from the start, The Sound of the Mountain grabbed me a lot more than the Kawabata books I’d previously read. The novel was specifically mentioned when he won the Nobel Prize for literature, and that’s probably because it is the most Western-friendly of his major works. It’s a book which grapples with the problems of family life and the extent to which a patriarch should interfere in the lives of those around him, but it also has a much wider reach, looking at the unstoppable changes wrought on a traditional society by defeat at war and the consequent western influences this brought with it.
There are many such influences highlighted in the story. Foreigners can be seen strolling around Shinjuku (albeit a more verdant Shinjuku than I remember!), modern electrical appliances are beginning to make their entrance into the Japanese home, and kimonos are beginning to give way to western dresses and suits. This western dominance even extends to the way in which the method for counting your age changes half-way through the story, with Shingo and Yasuko becoming younger as a result!
However, the effects on the family unit are much more serious. The pull of family obligations appears to be far weaker, allowing Shuichi to mistreat his wife Kikuko – and giving Fusako the strength to walk out on her husband, Aihara. It’s not only the wives who suffer though – some of Shingo’s friends, married men in their sixties, roam the streets of Tokyo every evening, too scared to return home until their wives are safely asleep.
This newfound freedom is also seen in the characters of Ikeda and Kinu, Shuichi’s mistress. The two women are war widows, but instead of returning either to their husband’s family or their own, they have decided to take the opportunity to be independent and live by themselves, even starting up their own business. In fact, Kinu, despite only appearing in one brief chapter (and not actually being seen in person until page 174 of 209!), is a character who overshadows the whole novel, a potential homewrecker and a threat to familial stability.
The Sound of the Mountain
reminds me of two novels by another famous Japanese writer, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki
. Shingo is reminiscent of Utsugi, Tanizaki’s mad old man
, albeit it in a gentler, less-deranged (!) way, his memory lapses showing that he is well on his way towards a second childhood. The relationship hinted at with his daughter-in-law also links the two works. However, the novel as a whole also has similarities with Tanizaki’s epic family novel, The Makioka Sisters
. While The Makioka Sisters
concentrates on the struggles of the younger generation, Kawabata’s story, set around the same time, focuses on those of their parents and grandparents, struggles which, though different, are every bit as real.
The title of the novel comes from a scene in which Shingo is startled by a dull, distant roar, a sound he imagines to come from the heart of the mountain visible from his garden. It is only when he later mentions this to his wife that he recalls the last time he heard it – in his youth, just before the death of his wife’s sister… The sound of the mountain then is a warning of impending disaster, a warning which Shingo is forced to heed if he is to keep his family together. Will he manage it, despite his lethargy? Well, there’s only one way to find out…