Post-war life in Japan turns out to be the real protagonist in The Sound of the Mountain (山の音), an achingly poignant novel by Yasunari Kawabata. The story follows the happenings in the Ogata household over a couple of years, witnessed through the thoughts of Shingo, its aging patriarch.
The elderly Shingo couple reside in Kamakura, with their son Shuichi and his wife Kikuko. Father and son work in the same office in Tokyo, to which they commute daily by train. The seemingly idyllic picture of this family starts to unravel as we slowly discover that Shuichi is openly having an affair with a war widow Kuni, while Fusako, the daughter of the family, takes refuge with Shingo with her two daughters in tow after leaving her husband.
Parents guilt in their childrearing and their ultimate disappointment in how children turn out is a real and timeless theme and it initially does seem to be what’s at the core here. Only late into the novel did I realize that Kawabata had been providing so many minor background details on pre- and post-war life, American soldiers, prostitutes, and war widows. The oddly lackadaisical and wayward behaviors of principal characters started to make sense in the final chapters when their pasts are subtly revealed. These are a people and a nation recovering from deep wounds and changes.
Serialized in Japan during 1949-54, this English translation by Edward Seidensticker was published in 1970. This was after Kawabata won the Literature Nobel in 1968. I found this novel to be breathtakingly beautiful. The writing is light, poetic, dreamlike and Kawabata’s astute obversations on human life left me thoughtful at every page. Kawabata delicately intertwines people, nature and nation as they tread slowly but steadily through ageing and time. I also loved the appearance of lines from classic Japanese poems, comparisons to Japanese art and mentions of classical music. There are good books and there are great books, this one was clearly the latter and needless to say that I need to read more of Kawabata.
I found it easier to read the novel by maintaining a list of principal characters:
Shuichi seemed to be calling out in heart-broken love and in sorrow. It was the voice of one for whom there is nothing else. The groaning was like a child calling out for its mother in a moment of pain and sorrow, or of mortal fear. And it seemed to come from depths of guilt. Shuichi was calling out to Kikuko, seeking to endear himself to her, with a heart that lay cruelly naked. Perhaps, his drunkenness his excuse, he called out in a voice that begged for affection, thinking he would not be heard. And it was as if he were doing reverence to her.
A marriage was like a dangerous marsh, sucking in endlessly the misdeeds of the partners. Kinu’s love for Shuichi, Shingo’s love for Kikuko – would they disappear without trace in the swamp that was Shuichi’s and Kikuko’s marriage? It seemed to Shingo quite proper that in postwar domestic law the basic unit had been changed from parent and child to husband and wife.
How many years had it been since he had stopped asking Yasuko about her physiological processes? Since the change of life, Yasuko herself had said nothing. Had it become a question not of vigor but of decay? Shingo had forgotten a matter of which Yasuko had stopped speaking.
Think of the man who checks your shoes at the restaurant. All he does day after day is put away shoes and take out shoes. One of us old men had a theory all his own – that things are actually easier for that kind of spare part. But the waitress didn’t agree. The old man who takes care of shoes has a hard life, she said. He has to work in a hole with shoe shelves all around him, and there he sits hugging a charcoal fire and shining shoes. It’s cold in the winter there in the doorway and hot in the summer.
“Because I know how it was before birth, because I know how it was before birth, I have no parent to love. Because I have no parent, neither have I child to be loved by.”
“The former Buddha has gone, the later not yet come. I am born in a dream, what shall I think real? I have chanced to receive this human flesh, so difficult of receiving.”
“Did you kill anyone during the war?” “I wonder. If anyone got in the way of a bullet from my machine gun, he probably died. But you might say I wasn’t shooting the machine gun.”
There were in the world people so resembling each other that one could only take them for parent and child. There could hardly, however, be large numbers of such people. Probably in all the world there was only the one man to go with the girl, only the one girl to go with the man. Only the one for either of them; and indeed perhaps in all the world there was only one such couple. They lived as strangers, with no suggestion of a bond between them. Perhaps they were even ignorant of each other’s existence. And quite by chance they were aboard the same train. They had come together for the first time, and probably would never meet again. Thirty minutes, in the length of a human life. They had parted without exchanging words. Sitting side by side, they had not looked at each other, and neither could have noticed the resemblance. And they had separated, participants in a miracle of which they had been unaware.