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A blog for everything bookish

Sunday, 1 February 2015

The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata (tr. Edward M Seidensticker)


“Though August had only begun, autumn insects were already singing.

He thought he could detect a dripping of dew from leaf to leaf.

Then he heard the sound of the mountain.”

This poetic novel by one of Japan’s truly great writers, Yasunari Kawabata, reflects on the life of an old man named Shingo who lives in Tokyo with his family. Shingo is old, his world is changing and it seems increasingly out of his control. One night Shingo wakes and hears the sound of the mountain, as described here.

“It was like wind, far away, but with a depth like a rumbling of the earth. Thinking that it might be in himself, a ringing in the ears, Shingo shook his head.

The sound stopped, and he was suddenly afraid. A chill passed over him, as if he had been notified that death is approaching. He wanted to question himself, calmly and deliberately, to ask whether it had been the sound of the wind, the sound of the sea, or a sound in his ears. But he had heard no such sound, he was sure. He had heard the mountain.

It was as if a demon had passed, making the mountain sound out.”

Shingo lives with his wife Yasuko, his son Suichi and his son’s wife Kikuko. Yasuko and Shingo have another daughter, Fusako, whose marriage is in trouble. But concerning Shingo more is the trouble in the marriage between Shuichi and Kikuko. Shuichi is having an affair with another woman, a matter which causes Kikuko much pain and humiliation. Shingo is extremely fond of Kikuko and in a sense this fondness is the pivot around which the story unwinds. From his gentle interactions with Kikuko we learn of a man who is paralysed by age, by a dwindling memory, by a failure to understand the world around him including his children, by choices he had made which it seems he wishes he could unmake. Though not unhappy in his own marriage, Shingo’s mind still lingers on Yasuko’s beautiful sister, a woman with whom he had a relationship before his marriage to Yasuko. In fact it was only after the sister had died that Shingo married Yasuko, albeit that the sister had been married to another man. The difficulties in the relationships between Shuichi and Kikuko, as well as the failure of Fusako’s marriage, bring this all into Shingo’s mind.

The Sound of the Mountain is a delicate and complex novel. Though apparently ‘light’ on story, there is a depth to it and a strength of character which comes through more on reflection. Each chapter is based around a small event or observation: The Cherry in Winter, The Bell in Spring, The Voice in the Night; and each chapter brings out something of Shingo’s life or surrounding relationships. Supporting each observation or event is a memory or dream; dreams figure extremely heavily in this novel and serve to draw out a particular aspect of Shingo’s character – his inaction, his failing memory, his desires for Kikuko who may, it seems, serve as a metaphor for Yasuko’s sister for whom Shingo has never ceased to care. There is a haiku-esque quality to the book, both in style and in substance, like in this passage here:

“The moon was in a blaze. Or so, just then, it seemed to Shingo.

The clouds around the moon made him think of flames behind Acala in a painting, or a painting of a fox-spirit. They were coiling, twisting clouds.

But the clouds, and the moon too, were cold and faintly white. Shingo felt autumn coming over him.

The moon, high in the east, was almost full. It lay in a blaze of clouds, it was dimmed by them.

There were no other clouds near the blaze in which the moon lay. In a single night after the storm the sky had turned a deep black.

The shops were shuttered. The town too had taken on a melancholy aspect in the course of the night. People were on their way home from the movie through silent, deserted streets.

‘I couldn’t sleep last night. I’m going to be early.’ Shingo felt a lonely chill pass over him, and a yearning for human warmth.

And it was as if a crucial moment had come, as if a decision were forcing itself upon him.”

It is quite beautiful, made more so by there being so much left unsaid. I got the impression that Shingo, here, serves to represent pre-war Japan, whereas Shuichi, with his apparent cruelty and disregard for his kind and beautiful wife, represents post-war Japan. Between the old and the new there is a failure of understanding. There is a suggestion that the new is somehow soulless, lacking something. But then there is also the sense of something degraded in the old. In between this, Shingo feels himself powerless to act, to fulfil the role that is expected of him which, perhaps, no longer really exists.


The Sound of the Mountain is the kind of novel that reminds me of all the things I’ve loved about Japanese literature: its delicacy, its beauty and frailty, its unflinching gaze which still manages to be, somehow, just a little bit oblique like watching a scene through a fine gauze curtain. In this novel Kawabata confronts the complexities of human relationships, the difficulties of aging and attaining fulfilment, guilt and degradation, all with a level of refinement and delicacy that you almost don’t realize that’s what you’re reading about. It’s powerful stuff, beautifully written. A haiku of a novel, puzzling and rewarding all at the same time.