Review of Yasunari Kawabata's Palm Of The Hand Stories(co-reviewed by Brent Peterson)
'Affectless' prose is an interesting thing. Despite its supposed merits of subtlety and concision through absence of emphasis, it isn't always the case that 'spare' prose results in anything more believable or affecting than more ornate writing. Indeed, the reverse is often the case. Supposedly minimalist, understated lines become monumental and bloated by dint of their sheer purposefulness; the affected intention shines through the alleged clarity. Think of many Bukowski poems, where every line slams home with a clunk; or the ponderous thud of Hemingway's 'simple' sentences.
One of the few writers I've seen make understatement work is the Japanese Modernist and Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata; and Kawabata does things with understatement that I wouldn't have thought possible if I hadn't chanced to pick up his Beauty and Sadness a few years ago. That book is certainly 'affectless' - as much descriptive weight is accorded to the deaths of major characters as it is to what their family members have for breakfast. But what saves Kawabata from clunkiness is a fine eye for detail: he has an Impressionist's command of light and color paired with a Modernist's appreciation for the strange, for the union of seeming incongruities. In short, he writes narrative haiku - and if that sounds precious, it should be remembered that his stories and novels are devoid of both sentimentality and bitterness.
Palm of the Hand Stories, translated by Lane Dunlop and J. Martin Holman, contains 70 stories in 240 pages. Most are no more than 3 pages; the longest is 11. And yet, these are not jokes, incidents, vignettes, or even sketches: they're full-blooded short stories, just small. They're like ships in bottles where, if you look closely enough, you can see a tiny sailor polishing the deck through the surface sheen of the glass. Even as a young writer (he claimed to have written these stories in his youth instead of poetry) Kawabata seems to have had a perfect command for the right details to include - rather than bludgeoning the reader with extended paragraphs, he fixates on single, telling perceptions. He even condenses his entire novel Snow Country into a palm-of-the-hand story, 200+ pages cut down to 11, without any real loss. You get the feeling that the reverse would be just as feasible: many of these stories could easily be expanded into novels. They're like fictional fractals: zooming in or out only reveals finer points of the construction, possibilities both explored and dormant.
The stories 'The White Flower' and 'Glass' are some of the most emotionally complex pieces of short fiction I've ever read, and neither of them is more than three pages. In the former, a pale, sickly girl, possibly tuburcular, is sent to a sanatorium for her illness. While there, after her rehabilitation, the young doctor attending her confesses his love for her, claiming that if medicine weren't his calling from heaven, "my emotions would have killed you by now." The girl leaves the doctor for a novelist, who wants to 'sketch her soul in words'. But this conventionally romantic sentiment alienates the girl further, and he admits that "If I weren't a novelist, my emotions could not have let you live into the distant future." The story ends with the girl sitting alone in her room after the death of her cousin, reflecting on the word "pink" which both the doctor and the novelist used when discussing their love for her. The girl seems at ease, and the story ends with her smiling. There is a suggestion of incest with the dead cousin, but nothing explicit. Subtly, the story makes much of the interplay of pink/white and the perversity of the frail girl who wishes for a strong man's arms to "make her ribs crack."
'Glass' concerns a husband and wife who learn the details of a young boy the girl once cared for. When they were younger, the boy worked in a hellish glass factory, and was injured by a ball of hot glass striking his shoulder. The wife, a girl at the time, visited the boy in the hospital and gave him money. Ten years later, the husband reads a story in a magazine and learns that the boy has become a writer and written a story, 'Glass', describing his encounter with the girl, Yoko, now the husband's wife. In the story, the boy explains how he got a job making flower vases, and sent the most beautiful one to Yoko as a present. At the same time, the boy resents 'the blessing of a haunting enemy', realizing the social gap that separated him from the bourgeois Yoko. The boy fantasizes about burning down their house, and imagines Yoko's beauty destroyed along with the vase. At the conclusion of the story, Yoko wonders out loud where the vase went, and the husband thinks that "He had never seen such a meek face on his wife." Yoko's possible involvement with the boy is smoothed over as the husband gives a pious homily, pointing out, as he sees it, the futility of class warfare. The surface awkwardness between husband and wife is resolved, but the status quo is not restored:
"But this was odd. The man had never once in all these years felt the loveliness and freshness in his wife that he perceived in the girl in the story. How could that bent-backed, pale, sickly urchin have this kind of power?"
In just two lines, Kawabata shifts emphasis from the husband's suspicion and jealousy to a new realization: the power of the written word to transform perception. These reversals are common: you could think of them as plot twists, except that they twist expectation rather than a direct line of external action.
Kawabata referred to some of these stories as 'unnecessarily contrived.' But, to my mind, that sounds less like self-criticism than a challenge, a personal bet to see if a two-page story can be anything other than a potted observation or brief glimmer. There's a nice audacity in having 3-page stories with convoluted plots. This, for example, is the opening paragraph of 'God's Bones':
"Mr. Kasahara Seiichi, managing director of a suburban trolley car company; Takamura Tokijuro, actor in historical movies; Tsujii Morio, medical student at a private university; and Mr. Sakuma Benji, owner of the Canton restaurant - each had received the same letter from Yumiko, a waitress at the Blue Heron coffee shop."
Now, keeping that info-dense, potboileresque setup in mind, consider that the entire length of this story is two pages. And yet, it's one of the best ones here, a consideration of loss, responsibility, and nothingness. Yumiko, the waitress, becomes pregnant and miscarries. Not certain which of the four men is the father, Yumiko sends them all a portion of the child's ashes, claiming they are "the bones of God," construing the facelessness of the child as a purposeful imitation of divinity. The story recounts how each of the fathers discounts the bones. Only the managing director visits Yumiko, and the story ends with him asking her to bury the ashes at a temple rather than holding onto them. Yumiko is confused, and states that she has given all the bones away. This last line does not 'resolve' anything (although Seichii's questioning underpins the hypocrisy of the waitress continuing to hold onto and venerate the child she claimed to have given away) but it conveys the moral uncertainty of the story.
"Thunder in Autumn" tells the story of a town's legend of a boy whose mother feared thunder. After the mother died, the boy ran to the cemetery to embrace her gravestone whenever thunder sounded. Eventually the boy was struck by lightning and charred, and the boy's example of filial piety led the townspeople to feed portions of his ashes to their children in the hopes of the value being passed down. The story picks up as a young man from the village considers the position of his new wife:
"In our new home outside the city, four crickets jumped out from behind my bride's new bureau. The white coverlet had not yet been removed. My new bride had the early summer brilliance of a bouquet of lilacs. Then, once again, the thunder cracked as if the summer would destroy itself. As I held my cowering little bride, what I first felt through her skin was something within her that was a mother. Who could not say I would not become a charred corpse when I embraced this warm, soft tombstone?"
Every story has a passage like this, a moment of counterintuitive intensity. Reading Palm of the Hand Stories is like listening to an album where, instead of the songs' verse/chorus structures repeating themselves into tedium, every track is the peak of each song's intensity and nothing more. There are a million ways many of these stories could have ended up contrived or gimmicky, but Kawabata always finds a small kernel of human behavior to underpin everything; these are always people, never puppets jerked in service of a conceit. Throughout the 70 stories, Kawabata's characters become recognizable - he's fond of sad girls, old men, dilettantes and the blind - but never stereotyped, and often unpredictable. Even when stories like "Bamboo Leaf Boats" (which concerns a crippled girl waiting for her fiance to return from World War II) seem to risk the maudlin, Kawabata cuts away from any melodrama. Where a lesser writer would end this and similar stories with a flourish or lament, Kawabata's endings sometimes seem arbitrary or neutral. Some of the stories, indeed, (many of the dream stories) seem like non-sequiturs at first - and it's easy to see how a cursory reading would dismiss them as trifles. But Kawabata is not being random; even in the stories without tight plots, there is always an order to the proceedings, a thematic connective tissue. Kawabata is very good at evoking the ways in which the mind processes metaphor and memory - in "Tabi", for example, the whiteness of a roundworm crawling from a dead girl is linked in the narrator's mind to the whiteness of her school socks; and this is later connected to a dead teacher the girl fell in love with. These kind of connections seem much closer to actual mental processes than the unpunctuated 'stream-of-consciousness' writing of Kawabata's contemporaries, and feel much less forced. Kawabata loves synaesthetic metaphors, and often relies on the combination of contradictory terms: conventionally ugly things become beautiful, and vice versa. In the story 'Autumn Rain', a dream of 'fire falling on mountains red with autumn leaves' is connected to the narrator's observation of drops of rain streaking across a train window. As the narrator explains:
"My vision of the fire falling on the autumn mountains had been entirely soundless, but I imagined that it was the music of the drops that struck the glass and flowed along that had become my vision of falling fire."
The condensed version of Snow Country displays similar techniques: the opening scene – made famous by the novel - features the extended play of a girl's reflection in the frosted-over mirror of a train window (much is made of the overlapping of visual planes and the diffraction of light); and later on there are a woman's 'small, budlike lips' compared to 'a beautiful circle of leeches'; the 'sweet, rounded sound' of flowing water in a stream (which predates Nabokov's famous 'square echo' of a car door); and, at the end, a second scene of reflection, with the geisha heroine's 'purple-black' hair outlined against a reflection of 'burning snow' in a mirror. Considering how well this poetry comes through, even in translation, it's easy to imagine why Kawabata is considered nigh-untouchable in Japanese literary circles, and a continuation of the haiku tradition of brief and surprising observation.
This book's intensity derives from its lack of anything unnecessary. Pointed, poetic, and greatly re-readable, Kawabata's mastery of concision and detail makes his contemporaries seem to be sculpting with a blunt sledge rather than his laser scalpel. The only problem is that, if I attempted to summarize more of these stories in depth, I'd end up including their entire text. A total absence of filler will do that. In short, this is a fantastic and deceptively dense work from a 20th century master who was more than deserving of his Nobel Prize.
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