Family Matters

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…

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14 thoughts on “Family Matters

  1. Good review, Tony. This is the only Kawabata I've read to date and I liked it. It's a long time since I read it but I really enjoyed Shingo's contemplation on aging. I liked the language – the symbolism, the metaphors. I enjoyed seeing the reslationship challenges played out in a different culture – so specific and yet so universal.

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  2. This is definitely the one to go for if you're interested in reading Kawabata. Some of the others have been a little too oblique for me, but tgis one hit the spot 🙂 The next one for me would probably be 'The Old Capital' as I've heard good things about that.

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  3. Give me a French novel or a French film and I'm good with it. I've never been into Japanese film with a couple of exceptions (a fault of mine as far as I'm concerned), and to be honest it extends to Japanese literature too.

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  4. I'll admit that it's probably my three years in Japan which have made me such a big J-Lit fan – even if I didn't actually read any until well after I left 😉

    By the way, I downloaded some free Balzac for my Kindle, and I am determined to read something in March!

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  5. ah free Balzac, I posted a review about Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress today.

    This book sounds good. Between the Sound of Mountains and A Thousand Cranes, which is better? Thanks for the review.

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  6. This one resonated with me; the others had their moments but never quite got there. Having said that, I get the feeling that they are books which will improve on a second reading 🙂

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  7. I have yet to complete a Kawabata. This one was the only one I had begun reading but didn't get to finish. Though I intended to, I just never got to go back to it often enough, and then we left home and I left the book there. I had to read it in snippets because it was so slow, which isn't a bad thing, just that I wanted to really savour it, then forgot to finish. I'm still hoping one day I will. Right now I only have The Master of Go on hand, the old edition. Thanks for the heads up on the new Penguin Modern Classics edition. Do they print any other Japanese authors? I know Vintage Classics have Tanizaki.

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  8. Claire – I have a few by Natsume Soseki, but in the black classics range, not the modern classics. I think that Kobo Abe had a few in the previous incarnation of the silver modern classics range though 🙂

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  9. Oh I had forgotten, I've read Snow Country before! I forgot it was by Kawabata. I loved that one! I actually read it up there on your first paragraph and then forgot about it by the time I finished reading your post..

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