Yasunari Kawabata is a writer I admire immensely. Although perhaps slightly limited in his range of themes and stories, he has a truly world-class sense of technical perfection and stylistic beauty, and the best of his novels and stories (Snow Country and Beauty and Sadness are my favorites, with the excellent Palm of the Hand Stories perhaps being his masterwork) are so satisfying and haunting as to make him unquestionably deserving of his Nobel Prize. Someone (can't remember the source) compared reading a Kurt Vonnegut book to eating an ice cream cone, and if that's true, then a Kawabata book is more like a high-quality Italian gelato - cold, perhaps, but exquisite, and best when served in small portions. At one point I pretty much blindly accepted him as a god; and while after much consideration I've decided Mishima at least equals him, he's still up there for me as one of the masters.
Kawabata has a reputation for being difficult, and of all his books I've read to date, The Master of Go is probably the least accessible. The difficulty is as much due to the subject matter as it is stylistic; it is, to make an understatement, heavy on the Go - that is, the ancient board game played with black and white stones, containing dense mathematical possibilities. Here, Kawabata doesn't just describe the Master and his challengers playing Go, he illustrates their matches with maps of the board and the positions of the stones, amid detailed descriptions of their doubts, fears and nervous agitations. I'd be lying if I said I had a real understanding of the game by the end of the book, but I was at least able to get some sense of the labyrinthine strategy and deliberation underlying it.
Based on a series of newspaper reports Kawabata wrote for the Osaka and Tokyo Mainichi Shinbun in 1938, this is ostensibly nonfiction, but a fairly long list of footnotes reveals that Kawabata changed details and names as he saw fit; and considering few modern readers will likely have any firsthand experience with the background and material, it's probably best to just accept The Master of Go as an outright novel. Although - as I'll explain - I have my problems with that designation, since I don't feel that the book really fulfills novel-style expectations. But for all the relation the hermetic and competitive world of early 20th century Go championships has to modern Western readers, it might as well be set on another planet, it's so out of the world (to be fair, I can't imagine a modern Japanese reader being able to make much of it, either).
The plot - told newspaper-style, with Kawabata intermittently embellishing and speculating on the nature of Go - is a recounting of the intensely ceremonious and belabored final match of Shusai, the eponymous Master of Go, playing against the much younger challenger Otake. If this was a Western sports (or, more comparably, Chess) novel, you'd expect Otake to be some kind of hot-headed upstart who despises the Master and longs to overthrow him, but here, the challenger has nothing but the greatest respect for the Master and actually views his eventual victory with ambivalence. Both characters are beset by physical ailments - old age and heart trouble in the Master's case, nervous problems in Otake's. The Master's inevitable physical decline generates almost all of the narrative tension; both Kawabata's journalist narrator and the Go promoters are never quite sure how much the Master is pushing himself beyond the limits of endurance in order to make a final stand. 'The limits of endurance' might seem like an incongruous phrase to apply to a fairly sedate-seeming board game, but the climactic Go match lasts six months, with each stone cast requiring nigh-endless deliberation. And I do mean endless - the way Kawabata describes it, Go becomes a grueling pit of psychological warfare, a blank canvas on which both players splash the violent colors of their competition, the glorious and ancient 'diversion of the immortals' in Chinese history. Think I'm being dramatic? Here's how some of the characters, Go masters in their own right, take a look at the game as it unfolds:
Black 99 peeped in upon a White triangle, and with White 100, the last play before he was hospitalized, the Master joined his stones. Afterwards, in his review of the game, he said that if he had not so joined his stones but rather sought to control the Black formation to the right of the board and prevent an incursion into White territory, 'the outlook would not have been such as to permit sanguineness on Black's part.' He seems to have been satisfied with the early course of the game. The fact that he had been able to play White 48 on a star point and so to 'control the passes' in the opening stages 'meant what anyone must concede to be an ideal White formation. It followed, he said, that 'Black 47, giving up the strategic point, was too conservative a play,' which could not 'evade charges of a certain tepidness.'
...'A fine thing,' Otake muttered over and over again. 'A very fine thing.' He was still deliberating Black 131 when the noon recess was called. 'A fine thing he's done to me. A terrible thing, that's what it is. Earthshaking. I make a stupid play myself, and here I am with my arm twisted behind me.'
'This is what war must be like,' said Iwamoto gravely.
Aaaaaahhh! What's *happening* here? Even with the provided diagrams, the Go analysis is nigh-impenetrable. Although it might seem a strange reference to make, this reminds me of nothing so much as sports-anime like The Prince of Tennis, where each minor move and muscle twitch of the contestants is over-scrutinized at length by a cadre of preening commentators. Although Kawabata never quite convinced me that Go was as big a deal as the characters here believe it to be, he did convince me that such people could exist, and that their world could be not so far out of the Japanese mainstream (in real life, the Go game described in the book drew a widespread national following as it progressed).
The chronicle style is maintained throughout the book, and although, to be fair, Kawabata's surrogate, Uragami, actually does intercede in events at one crucial point to make sure the match proceeds smoothly, he's largely just a faceless narrator, occasionally given to reflection on the meaning of Go. This leads to - to my mind - some of the book's most simultaneously nostalgic and nationalistic passages, as Uragami spits out things like:
Go came to Japan from China. Real Go, however, developed in Japan. The art of Go in China, now and three hundred years ago, does not bear comparison with that in Japan. Go was elevated and deepened by the Japanese...it is clear that in Go the Japanese spirit has transcended the merely imported and derivative.
I can't really believe this kind of thing: Uragami (and by inference, Kawabata) seems to think the spirit of Go equates to the spirit of Japan, as when he engages an American Go player and decides that 'the spirit of Go was lacking' because of the American's apparent indifference to true competitive play (i.e. giving a shit that you lost). Uragami goes on to wax mystical about Go, comparing it to Noh drama and the tea ceremony, but these passages felt a little rote to me, a little trying-too-hard to justify an interest - not all that different, in fact, from Adam Pennyman's need to justify the importance of old-school videogames in Lucky Wander Boy. At times, the reader is tempted to ask, so what? What does any of this matter? Writing as he was during the height of World War II, you're tempted to wonder whether Kawabata didn't have more important things to write about than the detailed lines of succession in the Go world. But of course, as Uragami points out, Go, like anything, is what you take it for.
And what about the writing? Kawabata is always understated, and here, the consistently journalistic tone usually avoids calling attention to itself. But now and then something will slip through, usually for the better:
The light through the half-opened night doors came from the feet, and the light from the ceiling struck the lower part of the face ; and since the head tilted slightly backward, the forehead was in shadow. The light struck from the jaw over the cheeks, and thence toward the rise of the eyebrows and hollow eyes to the bridge of the nose. Looking more closely, I saw that the lower lip was in shadow and the upper lighted, and between them, in the deep shadow of the mouth, a single upper tooth could be seen. White hairs stood out in the short mustache. There were two large moles on the right cheek, the farther from the camera. I had caught their shadows, and the shadows too of the veins at the temples and forehead. Only a single tuft of the short-cropped hair above caught the light. The Master had stiff, coarse hair.
Only Kawabata could have written this, the same obsessive recounting of facial detail that also marked House of the Sleeping Beauties gives him away instantly. It's a shame there wasn't more of this characteristic writing, because the Go logistics can grow tiring, and the narrative tension is fairly low. The ending is also marred by some memorably bad dialogue:
"I wonder if he understood. He did want us to stay, and I wonder if he wasn't hurt. He didn't at all want us to go. We should have quietly accepted. Don't you suppose he was lonely?"
"Yes. But he was always lonely."
"It was cold, and he saw us to the door."
"Stop. I don't like it. I don't like having people die."
The body was taken back to Tokyo that day. It was carried from the hotel in a quilt, so tiny that it scarcely seemed to be there at all.
Well...yeah, no shit! No one likes it when people die, right? I could accept that line from a young girl, or something, but from a relatively hardboiled newspaper reporter? WTF? For once, Kawabata's mastery of understatement seems to fail him. I closed this book thinking 'So what?' The Master was well sketched, but I mean...I don't know. I don't know what I expected. Again, the shosetsu or chronicle form doesn't necessarily entail traditional novelistic expectations, but compared to something as head-fucking as Beauty and Sadness and most of the other novels, The Master of Go seems tepid.
I just can't recommend this book. There's not enough inherent character drama to drive things, and the allegory about fading traditions and the passing of the guard feels forced and not particularly relevant. The narrator might retort that Go, as an intrinsically Japanese game and tradition (despite originating in China - of course) can't translate well to a Western novel-reading audience, but that sounds like a cop-out to me. Kawabata has demonstrated so definitively elsewhere his mastery of character and narrative form that this book - eminently masterful as a newspaper-style report, admittedly - feels like a let-down. Come here after you've read everything else he's written, and if you can't finish it, don't worry.