‘The Lake’ by Yasunari Kawabata (Review)

When you decide to read another book by one of your favourite writers, you’re usually pretty sure of what you’ll find, but that’s not the case with my latest #JanuaryInJapan selection.  You see, while Yasunari Kawabata (one of the two Japanese writers to have been honoured with the Nobel Prize in Literature) is known for his subtle examinations of Japanese life, today’s book is less subtle than simply oblique, to the extent that I’m still not quite sure whether it’s a masterpiece or a disaster.  Let’s take a look, then, at a very different book by the Japanese master, one that I suspect not everyone will find to their taste…

The Lake (translated by Reiko Tsukimura) introduces us to Gimpei Momoi, whom we meet roaming the streets of Karuizawa.  As he buys himself some new clothes, and then relaxes at a Turkish bath, we gradually learn what took him there:

Only the blue handbag remained in the center of the road as if to offer tangible evidence of his crime.  A bundle of one-thousand-yen bills jutted out between the open clasps of the bag.
p.16 (Kodansha International, 1983)

The first chapter, though, is mostly taken up with his bath and massage, mixing his attempts to chat up the masseuse with memories of what brought him to this point, and of certain earlier experiences.

Gimpei is to prove the focal character in the book, yet if you’re expecting a conventional narrative, with a developing plot, I’m afraid you’re out of luck.  The Lake is a short novel, constructed from a number of scenes with little to connect them at times.  For the most part we follow Gimpei, a man behaving rather badly, as he drifts around Tokyo, occasionally looking back on his life.

Gimpei, as you may have gathered, is not the most savoury of characters; in fact, from the start, with his creepy talk during his massage, he comes across as rather sleazy.  This is confirmed when we’re told of a rather disturbing habit:

“This may sound strange, but I’m telling you the truth.  Have you ever had that experience… a feeling of profound regret after passing some stranger in the street?  I’ve had it often.  I think to myself, “What a delightful looking person!” or “What a beautiful woman!” or “I’ve never seen anyone quite as attractive as that before.”  It happens when I’m just strolling around the streets, or sitting next to a stranger in the theater or walking down the steps from a concert hall.  But once they’ve gone, I know I’ll probably never meet them again in my life…” (p.37)

In a later section, we’re shown this ‘hobby’ in practice, when he follows an attractive schoolgirl, even hiding in a ditch the next day to watch her go past.

So, what’s it all about?  While it’s tempting to think it’s just Kawabata having fun, there might be more to it.  The book is set not long after the war (it was published in 1954), and Gimpei is very much a man adrift.  There’s also a sense of the story being a twisted fairytale, with our unattractive anti-hero obsessed with his ‘ugly’ feet.

The lake itself?  Well, that’s where it gets interesting.  One of the past strands is concerned with Gimpei’s recollections of his cousin Yayoi, and his memories of holidays spent with her family by the lake.  She was his first crush, and there’s a sense that she’s the cause of all his oddities, with our hero never quite having got over her.

That’s the literary view – of course, another way to see this is that it’s just a slightly sordid novel about stalking.  There’s the young woman mentioned above (whom he later hunts down at a firefly festival!) and the woman whose handbag he takes (after she threw it at him towards the end of his stalking).  In another of the memory strands, there’s even worse behaviour.  He recalls the time he follows a schoolgirl back to her home – while he was her teacher…

Even the structure of The Lake is somewhat jarring.  After the first section introduces us to Gimpei, the second one takes us to the woman whose handbag he ‘stole’, Miyako.  With the money soon forgotten, we learn about her life and her much older lover, and what she does for him.  At this point, it looks like the novel will be a two-strand work, comparing the twisted love lives of Gimpei and Miyako.  Surprisingly, though, that’s pretty much the last we hear of Miyako, leaving us wondering why we even paid her a visit.

Obviously, there’s something going on beneath the surface, and as the story develops, minor characters crop up repeatedly.  There are coincidental meetings between common acquaintances of Gimpei and Miyako, with both knowing certain people from different aspects of their lives, their public and private faces.  Yet these connections are never followed through and simply remain as potential developments, making it hard to get what the writer actually intends to say.

What are unmistakeable, though, are the erotic undertones that pervade the novel.  From the charged massage in the first section, to Miyako’s reception of her older lover, along with the illicit affair with a minor and memories of visits to women of the night.  To be fair, the writing never quite tips over from suggestion to description, but it’s certainly all a lot racier than you might have expected from a writer like Kawabata.

So, here we are at the end of my review, and if I’m honest, I’m still not quite sure what to make of The Lake.  It’s certainly an enjoyable and entertaining read, but as to how successful and accomplished it is, I’m afraid I’ve got no idea.  At some point, I’ll need to take another look at it, and hopefully a reread will shed some more light on everything.  In the meantime, if you’ve read the book, and if you have any ideas, please feel free to enlighten me…

9 thoughts on “‘The Lake’ by Yasunari Kawabata (Review)

  1. You see, it was books like The Lake or House of Sleeping Beauties which put me off Kawabata, no matter how much my university colleagues loved him. Mind you, I was a huge Mishima fan at the time (his writing style, not his politics).


    1. Marina Sofia – This was slightly bizarre, to say the least (and the other Kawabata I have left on the shelf is… ‘House of the Sleeping Beauties’!).

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Caroline – Definitely not. To be honest, I think there are slightly unsavoury elements to most of his work, but this one was pretty in your face. I’d suggest ‘Snow Country’ or ‘The Sound of the Mountain’, and if you don’t like those, perhaps he’s not for you 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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