Yasunari Kawabata’s Thousand Cranes

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

– e e cummings

Among all the great writers of the last century, there is no one quite like Kawabata. No other writer combines such a glorious sparseness of line with so exquisite a delicacy of tone. No other writer can write prose that is at once so simple, so unadorned, and yet so aching. Kawabata is at once the most poetic of writers and the least lyrical – no other author could write novels hundreds of pages long, and still have them deliver the emotional and aesthetic impact of a fine haiku. Kawabata’s novels take your breath away with the very fragility of their persistence, the very thinness of their translucence. The beauty of his novels is that they are at once timeless and tremblingly alive, so that reading them, it is difficult to believe that they will survive, let alone conquer. Kawabata’s prose is like fine, ancient porcelain, it is not simply the aching skill of his craftsmanship, it is the miracle that something so easily broken could have lasted through the centuries.

Thousand Cranes, Kawabata’s passionate, moving novel about young love tainted by old ghosts is a good example of this. The novel centres around a young bachelor, whose search for love is haunted by the memory of his father’s infidelity, and the suffering and guilt that lingers on in the young man’s heart from those days. As the novel progresses, this young man comes into contact with two of his father’s former mistresses, one of whom he ends up having an affair with (and who helps him to achieve a better understanding of the happiness and passion that his father sought), the other who repeatedly insinuates himself into her life, trying to take control of it, and poisoning his young life by becoming the embodiment of his own tortured conscience. At the heart of the novel, though, is the relationship between this young man and a young woman who he comes to fall in love with, the daughter of one of his wife’s mistresses, and the struggle of these two young people to break free of their common past, of the ghosts of their parents, that threaten to stifle them with shame and disgust.

In many ways, then, Thousand Cranes is a ghost story. It is a novel about the permanence of the past, about the insistent gravity that it exercises on us, of how we, struggling to be our own selves, slip inevitably back into the old disguises, the old forms, the old conceits. History, in Kawabata, has the inevitably of ritual; ghosts are not things we remember but things we inherit, ceremonies of longing and desire that even the strongest among us may prove too weak to escape. As the novel flows inexorably towards its conclusion, you come to slowly appreciate the patience, the infinite delicacy with which Kawabata has laid his snares. Behind the cunning simplicity of his plot lies a great depth of psychological determinism. Things turn out the way they do in Thousand Cranes because that is the way they must, yet this is far from being a predictable novel – rather the inevitably of what happens is only obvious after the fact; the novel constantly surprises you, but after you get over your surprise you can see why things had to be that way.

What makes Thousand Cranes such an exquisite read is that it is virtual palimpsest of metaphor and symbolism. Like a great miniaturist, Kawabata is a master of implicit meanings, capable of imbuing the most mundane objects with infinite consequence. Thus the novel turns the pristine simplicity of the tea ceremony into both a metaphor for the delicate maneouverings of desire and a symbol of the past that the two young people are trying to escape from, trying not to relive – a contradiction that is not restricted only to the tea ceremony, but lies at the very centre of the book’s dramatic tension. Again and again, these young people deny their interest in the ceremony, again and again they claim to have given it up, yet their own emotions prove this a false denial, and the power of the ceremony proves too much for them to escape. The utensils used for the ceremony are also metaphors – passed down from generation to generation, they are symbols of the timelessness of the human versus the mortality of man, of the way the universal survives and repeats itself in the specific. In this sense, the tea ceremony is a symbolic mirror for the situation of the two young people, but this situation itself is an allegory for the larger relationship between the individual and the timeless, between the ubiquity of desire and the specificity of each man’s love. What ultimately taints and destroys the young lovers is their knowledge of this contradiction – that the things we own and consider special to us, may be little more than keepsakes bequeathed to us by time, magical forms that will survive beyond us, continuing their endless journey with other masters when we have turned to dust. In Thousand Cranes, the lovers try to break away from this cycle, and end up being destroyed by it.

What’s amazing about all this is that Thousand Cranes is not even Kawabata’s finest book. Of the ones I have read, I would place both Snow Country and Beauty and Sadness above it, and I have a special fondness for the Master of Go. Thousand Cranes may be the most expressive and impassioned of Kawabata’s work, but for that reason it seems to me to lack the almost zen-like calmness of some of his other work. For all that, this is an astonishingly graceful, almost pristine novel. Kawabata is a line-artist, his novels are not great baroque paintings adorned with passionate colours, but rather sketches of hypnotic power, drawings where the simple accuracy of the line makes the figures come alive, so that the merest hint is enough for you to imagine the rest.

Bottomline: Read Kawabata. If you haven’t read him already, then Thousand Cranes is as good a place as any to start (better perhaps, given that it’s shorter and perhaps a little more accessible). If you have read some of his other work but haven’t got around to Thousand Cranes, then you already know what I’m talking about and I can only say that Thousand Cranes won’t disappoint you. All this is not important though. What’s important is only that you read this man, because he is one of the greatest artists of the last century, a true master of his form, and a writer your life will be poorer for for not having read.