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The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari…
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The Sound of the Mountain (1949)

by Yasunari Kawabata

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A slow-moving, lyrical account of a couple of years in the life of a middle-class family living in the historic small town of Kamakura a few years after the end of the war. Shingo, a businessman in his early sixties, is watching rather helplessly whilst just about everything he counts on is slowly crumbling away around him. His mind and body aren’t what they used to be, his son and daughter are both going through difficult patches in their marriages, his own marriage has gone stale, his friends are gradually dying off, and he can’t even take the same pleasure in nature, poetry and the harmonies of Japanese society and religion that he used to. Even the one thing that really does give him pleasure — his close friendship with his daughter-in-law — is a source of guilt to him when he sees that he may be holding her back from resolving the problems she has with her wayward husband.

Despite its very restrained, formal Japanese style, it’s not difficult to identify with Kawabata’s account of the fears and uncertainties that go with approaching old age in a time of destabilised social conditions. Kawabata isn’t known as political and historical writer, but the story here clearly is centred in the particular historical moment when he was writing, with frequent references to current newspaper stories or to people who have been damaged by the war in one way or another. ( )
  thorold | Apr 20, 2018 |
Yasunari Kawabata: The Sound of the Mountain

It took a little while to get into this book. The writing style is spare and taut in the extreme with only short, declaratory sentences. The story is told through the eyes of Shingo Okata, a man in his early sixties, living in Kamakura but still working in his own small business in Tokyo, with his son Shuichi. The main characters in the novel are all family: Shingo's wife, Yasuko, Shuichi, their daughter Fusako and her two small children, Shuichi's wife, Kikuko; Fusako is married to Aihara but he never appears on centre stage as they are separated. Secondary characters include Eiko, for a time a secretary who works with Shingo and Shuichi, and Kino, Shuichi's mistress, the fact of whom is well-known to the whole family.

The interior thoughts we hear are only those of Shingo and we see all the others through their interaction with Shingo and through his interpretation of their actions and supposed thoughts. There is no plot driving the novel forward. This is an account of "riding the wave of life", and herein lies the attraction that grew on me as I read.

Shingo is increasingly aware of the wing-beat of mortality with many of this friends dying, and his own signs of faltering physical and mental strength (his friends refer to themselves as "life's spare parts.") This pushes him inward to reflect on his life and especially, after forty years, the love he did not achieve with Yasuko's older sister whom he keeps alive in thoughts and perceived connections. What Shingo doesn't realise is that his obsession has made him less open to love, and so has constricted his life with Yasuko and, more seriously, affected his relations with Shuichi and Fusako. Shingo is pained by Shuichi's drinking, dissolute lifestyle, mistress, and shabby treatment of his wife, but there is no connection between the two men that allows Shingo to speak openly and to try to bring Shuichi back a more honourable path. Shingo's relationship with Fusako is even more fraught with deep-rooted anger based on Shingo never having been easy with her as a child, making it clear that he thought her unattractive (in his mind, how much prettier she would have been if he had married the older sister). This bites deep as Fusako blames him for having married her off to a loser such as Aihara, happy to have her out of the house, without proper vetting of the bridegroom. It is not said, explicitly, but you know that Yasuko is aware of Shingo's continued fascination with her deceased sister. In one moment of lucidity, Shingo realises, towards the end of the story, that, "he had contributed to no one's happiness."

Shingo's warmest, most human relationship is with his beautiful daughter-in-law, Kikuko who lives with Shuichi in Shingo and Yasuko's house. The novel is set in post-war Japan, but the practice of a bride moving into the home of her husband's family is still prevalent, if not now universal. Kikuko is lucky in that she has a close, respectful, even loving relationship with her in-laws, a far cry from the situation often portrayed in Japanese literature (see The Doctor's Wife). There are hints, including on the book blurb, of stirrings of desire from Shingo directed towards Kikuko. I don't think the story supports this. What Shingo exhibits is memories of desire, not desire to act. Shingo does have an eye for an attractive woman and he (or Kawabata?) does comment often on breasts; mention is made more than once of Eiko's quite small breasts, as opposed to Fusako's full and firm breasts as she feeds her youngest child, and when he meets Shuichi's mistress, her description includes how, "her rich breasts rose and fell." However, when Shingo dreams of an unnamed woman he vaguely recognizes, he feels, "neither excitement nor feelings of guilt" in touching her breasts in his dream. This is not a man burning to satisfying a desire. Kikuko is caring, compliant, and comfortable with Shingo, all the things he does not have with his immediate family members; this and her beauty, which stirs again memories of the deceased sister, are the bases for Shingo's feelings for Kikuko.

At one point, Shingo, "was astonished at his son's spiritual paralysis and decay, but it seemed to him that he was caught in the same filthy slough. Dark terror swept over him." There has to be different definitions of "slough" when looking at the two men. Unlike Shuichi, we do not see Shingo with a mistress, we do not see him dishonouring his wife, we do not see him abusive and drunk. We see that he has been a poor father, especially to Fusako, and not as loving a husband as he might have been, and someone stuck unhealthily in the past of things that never were, but these are far from a comparable spiritual decay.

Kawabata makes full use of nature as a metaphor for life. There are many references to the transitions of colours and shapes through the seasons from birth through life to death. Japan is a country that reveres flowers, trees, gardens and their role in appreciating life and its transience. It is also a country that has made art forms of arranging and controlling flowers in ikebana, and more forcefully, contorting and directing the growth of trees through bonsai. These practices of admiring natural occurrences while also controlling and directing nature's presentation, are two sides of the same coin; done properly, they can heighten awareness and pleasure and even complement each other, but they can have more negative effects. At one point, Shingo is, "deeply moved by the form [a] tree had taken in free and natural growth." It is precisely this "free and natural growth" that Shingo denied his children and himself by holding onto dreams and fantasies that only made him unhappy through comparisons with his life, throughout his life.

At the end of the novel there are hints of better futures, but nothing is resolved, and this is as it should be for this story of life and lives.

In the end, I appreciated the novel for its realistic portrait of lives and love and family, and for the reminder that regardless of the societal setting, the kaleidoscope of human interactions is universal.
1 vote John | Jun 28, 2017 |
This is the third novel I have read by Kawabata and I find his novels to be both simple and beautiful. I find Japanese literature to be interesting in general, but Kawabata's stories especially so. He has such a gentle pace to them. This is one of those slice of life types where our main character Ogata Shingo at 62 years of age finds himself becoming very forgetful - he worries that death may be coming for him as it has for friends. He has heard, he fears, the sound of the mountain, which he interprets as an omen of his death. He tries to find tranquility in nature, his attentive daughter-in-law and his tea drinking as his domestic life is undergoing a bit of upheaval with the marriages of his two children in trouble. This has a rather melancholy air to it, but not oppressing. Set during the early 50's, this really gave me a feel for the times in early post-war Japan as well as many small bits of Japanese society and culture.

Recommended. (I don't think it was random chance that awarded Kawabata the first Nobel prize to a Japanese in literature.) ( )
  RBeffa | Feb 21, 2017 |
A domestic tale from 1950s Japan. Nothing dramatic, nothing sensational. Everything more or less routine. No plot to follow, no twists to uncurl. Written in precise language, not aided by some odd translators quirks, it brings into focus family life and family concerns. An ageing husband, an adulterous son, a divorcing daughter. But peace is gained by looking inwards refreshed by the view from the garden or a walk in the park. And it introduced me to a fascinating piece of Japanese furniture. The kotatsu. ( )
  Steve38 | Feb 16, 2017 |
Sometimes you wonder why somebody was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Not in Kawabata's case. He was a genius of understatement, and this book something of a masterwork. ( )
  soylentgreen23 | Jul 3, 2016 |
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"A rich, complicated novel.... Of all modern Japanese fiction, Kawabata's is the closest to poetry."
added by GYKM | editThe New York Times Book Review
 

» Add other authors (21 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Yasunari Kawabataprimary authorall editionscalculated
Líman, AntonínTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Seidensticker, Edward G.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Ogata Shingo, his brow slightly furrowed, his lips slightly parted, wore an air of thought. Perhaps to a stranger it would not have appeared so. It might have seemed rather that something had saddened him.
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" ... in his portrait of an elderly Tokyo businessman, Yasunari Kawabata charts the gradual, reluctant narrowing of a human life, along with the sudden upsurges of passion that illumunate its closing. By day, Ogata Shingo is troubled by small failures of memory. At night he hears a distant rumble from the nearby mountain, a sound he associates with death. In between are the relationships that were once the foundations of Shingo's life: with his disappointing wife, his philandering son, and his daughter-in-law Kikuko, who instills in him both pity and uneasy stirrings of sexual desire."--Publisher description.… (more)

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