The month of cherry blossom

Elegiac and exquisite, the fictions of Yasunari Kawabata were among the most memorable of the 20th c

In 1938 Yasunari Kawabata was commissioned by a Tokyo newspaper to write about a championship game of Go between the best player in Japan, the Master, and a young, talented challenger. It was no ordinary game of Go: the aged Master, believed to be unbeatable, is portrayed in The Master of Go - Kawabata's book based on the 1938 match, which has just been reissued in a fine edition by Yellow Jersey Press - as the embodiment of a traditional and hierarchical Japan that is threatened by the forces of change and modernity, a Japan of ceremony and ritual to which the conservative and nostalgic Kawabata is deeply attached. The Master as reimagined in this non-fiction novel has a contemplative, Zen-like serenity: through Go he has learned the art of patience and the value of silence. But he is ill, and his illness affects the game, which keeps being interrupted and then suspended; as such, it occupies a period of more than eight months, at the end of which you sense the ailing Master will surely die, as he does. So this, in every sense, is to be his final game, his last stand as the Master of Go.

In the oriental game of Go, black and white stones are moved on a board but, unlike in chess or draughts, it is not a game of multiple moves by the same pieces. "Though captured stones may be taken from the board, a stone is never moved to a second position after it has been placed upon one of the 361 points to which play is confined," writes Edward Seidensticker, Kawabata's long-standing translator. "The object is to build up positions which are invulnerable to enemy attack, meanwhile surrounding and capturing enemy stones."

For Kawabata, Go was not simply a game; at its best, and especially as played by the Master, it was an art with a certain oriental nobility and mystery. As with Japan in the immediate postwar years, the game was changing (though begun earlier, this book was not published until 1951). "From the way of Go the beauty of Japan and the Orient had fled," Kawabata wrote. "Everything had become science and regulation. The road to advancement in rank, which controlled the life of a player, had become a meticulous point system." So The Master of Go is less a celebration of a great games player or work of dramatic reportage than a highly refined elegy of a kind that would come to define Kawabata in the second half of his life.

KAWABATA was born in the industrial town of Osaka in 1899, the son of a doctor. His early childhood was marked by trauma and bereavement: his father died when he was one and his mother when he was two. He went to live with his grandmother, who died when he was seven. Two years later, his only sister died as well. When he was 15, his grandfather died, prompting him to remark that, already at a young age, he had become a "master of funerals". His first important novella, The Diary of a Sixteen-Year-Old, offers a harrowingly realistic account of how he tended his grandfather on his deathbed.

Much later, after the atom bombs were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Naga-saki and Emperor Hirohito had unconditionally surrendered to the Americans to end the war in the Pacific as well as the myth of his own quasi-divine provenance, Kawabata, by that time middle-aged and established as a writer, wrote of how, "since the defeat, I have gone back into the sadness that has always been with us in Japan".

Was this sadness common to all Japanese, as he would have us believe? Or was it something much more personal, an expression of Kawabata's own ontological perplexity - the sadness of the adult who was once an orphaned child, lost and alone in the world? Whatever the origins of this sadness, Kawabata decided that, with the war's end, he would write only elegies; and so, on the whole, he did, producing some of the strangest and most memorably affecting fiction in 20th-century literature, the last major writer to work in the "classical" Japanese tradition. Today, the Japanese writers most familiar to western readers, from the Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe to Haruki Murakami, are inter nationalists in style, attitude and ambition, their politics largely leftist or liberal and their familiarity with popular culture - with Hollywood, the American vernacular, pop and the buzz of new technologies - obvious.

Kawabata was different. Influenced by the formal austerity and sparse, fragile lyricism of haiku, he is a miniaturist: he compresses where others seek to inflate and enlarge. His is a fiction of extreme economy, even of emptiness. Like the youthful Hemingway or, more recently, Kazuo Ishiguro, who has written of the influence of Kawabata on his own fiction, he leaves much unsaid and unexplained. To read him is to enter into an extended act of collaboration: Kawabata challenges you to interpret and imagine, to colour in and shade the empty spaces of his stories. Worked on and revised over many years, sometimes published as magazine extracts or episodically, his novels do not end so much as expire, in defiance of conventional expectations of narrative resolution and closure. You know where the novels are set but never quite know when, despite the occasional oblique reference to the war and to the social and cultural changes that followed. He understands, too, the value of silence - of the precise nuance, the interval, the pause.

Naturally, much of the subtlety of his prose-poetry - the short, intricately compressed sentences and paragraphs, the tension created by juxtaposing contrasting images - is lost in translation, especially what Roy Starrs, the author of Soundings in Time: the fictive art of Kawabata Yasunari, calls his "aesthetics of ma". "Ma", in broad translation, means interval or pause, and Kawabata's best sentences in Japanese are dis tinguished by suspensions in the action and by pauses between clauses, the equivalent of the use of white space in Japanese ink painting, or the long pause in haiku. Perhaps it is this sense of something missing that gives his work its presiding ambiguity and vagueness.

IN 1968, Kawabata became the first Japanese to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. In his Nobel lecture, "Japan, the Beautiful and Myself" (in which, addressing a western audience, he sought perhaps too consciously to conform to stereotypes of the mysterious Orient), he described the influence of the classical poets and Zen on his work. "The Zen disciple sits for long hours silent and motionless, with his eyes closed. Presently he enters a state of impassivity, free from all ideas and all thoughts. He departs from the self and enters the realm of nothingness. This is not the nothingness or the emptiness of the west. It is rather the reverse, a universe of the spirit in which everything communicates freely with everything, transcending bounds, limitless."

He could have been describing the aged Master as he sits impassively at the board during a game of Go. Indeed, in his later works, the central male characters often yearn for Zen-like states of grace and harmony while remaining resolutely of this world, burdened by doubt and erotic longing, striving for a freedom and detachment that can never fully be theirs. As a young man Kawabata had an intense, unfulfilled relationship with a young dancer. She became the inspiration for his celebrated novella The Izu Dancer (1925), and he returns again and again in later books to a certain ideal of female purity - youthful, innocent, chaste - and shows how the real must necessarily violate the ideal.

In his novella The Lake (1954), he describes a teacher's obsessive pursuit and stalking of an innocent adolescent girl: he watches her always from the shadows, sometimes feeling "like dying or killing her", so tortured is he by thwarted desire. House of the Sleeping Beauties (1961) is about a brothel where elderly men, often impotent and close to death, go to spend the night lying beside sedated young women. The rules of the house prevent them from having sex with the women, even if they could. This does not stop Yoshi Eguchi, who is slightly younger than other visitors, from fantasising about one of the girls with whom he is infatuated. Sometimes, resting beside her, he dreams of strangling her, to preserve her virginity in death; at other times he longs to die in her arms, a blissful surrender. The linking of sex with death is powerful in these later works, and reading Kawabata one can be reminded of Othello and the tormenting desire he feels for his young wife Desdemona, her skin "smooth as monumental alabaster", even as he prepares to murder her.

Beauty and Sadness (1965), the most gripping and tightly plotted of all Kawabata's novels, is about a successful writer called Oki who, in regretful and nostalgic middle age, returns to Kyoto, the old capital of Japan, to discover what became of a young woman with whom he had a disastrous affair many years before and later wrote about in one of his novels. Otoko, with whom Oki had a child that died as a baby, is now a painter, living with a younger woman, her lover. She has never forgotten the writer or ceased to love him, and his return unsettles not only Otoko but also her young lover, who is intent on avenging the unhappiness that Oki caused all those years earlier through his carelessness and arrogance. Once again, themes of male narcissism, sex, death, erotic obsession and the vulnerability of female purity are interconnected, and the preoccupation with mutability is acute: even in translation, one is repeatedly moved by the delicacy of the imagery and the understated precision of the limpid prose.

FOR all the sadness of his early years and the sombre longing of his later works, Kawabata began as a Europe-enthralled experimentalist. As a young man he attended Tokyo Imperial University, where he became interested in Euro-pean avant-garde literature and painting. He co-edited a journal called Literary Age, in which, attracted by the Arnoldian idea that literature and art would one day replace religion as the pre-eminent moral force in our lives, he introduced Japanese readers to Joyce and Proust as well as the work of the surrealists, the German expressionists and Dadaists. Some of his early stories were bold experiments in form: the stream of consciousness, the fractured narrative.

Slowly, however, as he moved away from European modernism and towards a more hardened cultural nationalism, his stories and novellas - with their tea ceremonies, geishas and ritualised formalities - increasingly revealed the influence of the classical Japanese tradition in style and sensibility. Perhaps his finest work is Snow Country (written between 1935 and 1947), set on the inaccessible and mountainous west coast of the main island of Japan, where snow settles thickly for at least five months of the year. It is here that Shimamura, a fatigued and wealthy habitué of the metropolis, travels by train through the snow to meet up with the woman he thinks he loves, a beautiful and apparently innocent hot-spring geisha called Komako. The hot-spring geisha does not have the same privileges as her city counterpart: she is condemned through social status to a life largely of servitude and isolation. The relationship between Shimamura and his geisha has a strange, formless in determinacy. They may feel a kind of inchoate love for each other, but it is a love that imprisons rather than liberates, an impossible love. In seeking beauty, the jaded Shimamura discovers ultimately that he can know only sadness.

If there is a recurring motif in Kawabata's work, it is the cherry trees that bloom beautifully for only a couple of days each spring before shedding their flowers, which the Japanese celebrate with hanami, cherry blossom viewing parties. In The Old Capital (1962), a late work praised by the Nobel committee, the cherry blossom spring in Kyoto is animated with exquisite care and all the usual precision. "The scarlet double flowers were blooming all the way to the tips of the slenderest weeping branches. It would be more fitting to say that the flowers were borne upon the twigs than to say they were simply blossoming there . . . The faintest touch of lavender seemed to reflect on the scarlet of the flowers."

One understands why Kawabata would be so moved by the transience and fragility of cherry blossom: in many ways, he must have spent most of his life mourning something important - first the parents he never knew; then his grandparents with whom he lived; and later, after the defeat, the rituals and ceremonies of the old nation that he sought to dignify in his fiction even as they were being overwhelmed, if not altogether lost, by the relentless American-led forward march of technology and progress.

In 1972, at the age of 72, suffering acutely from insomnia and unsettled by the fame that the Nobel Prize had brought him, Kawabata put his head in a gas oven and killed himself. As a practitioner of Zen, he did not believe in an afterlife. But maybe he believed in the long afterlife of art. Whatever, we are lucky to have his books, the best of which - Snow Country, Beauty and Sadness, The Master of Go - are unlikely to be forgotten by anyone who reads them. And he chose well the month of his death - April, the cherry blossom month.

Jason Cowley is a contributing editor of the New Statesman

The Master of Go
Yasunari Kawabata Yellow Jersey Press, 224pp, £7.99
ISBN 0224078186

Beauty and Sadness
Yasunari Kawabata Vintage Books, 206pp (out of print)
ISBN 0140082018

Snow Country
Yasunari Kawabata Vintage Books, 175pp, $12.95
ISBN 0679761047

The Lake
Yasunari Kawabata Kodansha International, 160pp, £8.99
ISBN 0870112163

The Old Capital
Yasunari Kawabata Shoemaker & Hoard, 182pp, $15
ISBN 0865474117

House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories
Yasunari Kawabata Kodansha International, 160pp, £9.99
ISBN 0706340612

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 21 August 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Al-Qaeda: Britain in its sights