Tuesday, 8 January 2013

The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata

A beautiful evocation of the city of Kyoto, The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata is a masterpiece.  It was cited as one of three works by Kawabata when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968 along with Snow Country and Thousand Cranes.  Kawabata lived from 1899 to 1972.

The story focuses on Chieko, a young woman both good, and beautiful who loves and honours her adoptive parents.  There are inconsistent stories of how she came to live with the couple she thinks of as her parents; was she stolen, or was she a foundling?  But Chieko becomes more curious about her past when she encounters a lost connection she never knew she had.

I know that there was a lot that I missed from this book because I am not familiar with all the locations, or the festivals, or the cultural significance of important aspects of the story.  I was at a total loss to understand the significance of, for instance The Imperial Offering of Cucumbers, although it certainly sounds like something I'd enjoy, being a fan of the vegetable myself.

I am reading the 1987 version of J. Martin Holman's translation.  I am interested to do a comparison with the 2006 updated edition to see if some of the difficulty I had with the text was my failure to understand the conventions of Japanese literature.  I was well aware through the entire novel that I was reading a translation.  Is this a bad thing?  To tell the truth, I'm not sure.  It is a translation, so there is an honesty in reading something that sounds like a translation.  I am always aware that I am reading through an intermediary.  However, this creates a distance from the characters when the dialogue sounds like they are not speaking their own language.  There is a jerkiness, a halting manner that may or may not be the author's style.

If I knew more about Japanese culture I think the symbolism and significance in the novel would have added a great deal to the writing.  However, the book is a delight just from a narrative point of view.  The characters of Chieko and Naeko are delightful, and their interactions with the other characters honest and varied.  The way Chieko can be playful with Shin'ichi, and yet so thoughtful with her parents gave her a depth of character that revealed her personality in a subtle, indirect manner.

Yasunari Kawabata (from here)

I had a wonderful browse through some photos from Kyoto as I read The Old Capital.  These are from our trip there a few years ago.  We visited the Ninnaji Temple and Arashiyama so I was fascinated to read about both of those locations in the novel.  Through the magic of Google Streetview I was able to look up some of the locations in The Old Capital.

In Arashiyama, Kyoto

In Arashiyama, Kyoto

At the Ninnaji Temple, Kyoto
Bamboo grove in Kyoto
My niece in her yukata



  1. I read this a couple of weeks ago, and I'll be reviewing it soon too. It's a great book, and perhaps a wider knowledge of Japanese culture would help to unravel some of its mysteries. It is a very typical, episodic novel, with the events happening against the backdrop of the festival and the passing of the seasons - or perhaps vice-versa... Having lived in this region, it was also nice to see a few places I know mentioned :)

  2. I'll definitely watch for your post, Tony. I look forward to reading your thoughts. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Very interesting thoughts, Lee-Anne. I lived in Japan for a number of years and I am hoping to read more Japanese literature (sadly, in translation since I never progressed far enough in my language skills). I have never read Kawabata but will look into his work. Regarding the ritual with the cucumbers, I just asked my Japanese husband and he has no idea what that is. ;-) Hmm.... I'm glad you got to visit Kyoto. It's such a gorgeous city!

    1. My brother has lived in Japan since 1991. It was wonderful to see the country with him. He left a pile of Japanese books with me and I've been meaning to read more of them. I felt with the experience of reading this Kawabata that immersing myself in the literature of japan for a period of time would probably be more beneficial than just dipping in every once in a while. Maybe a challenge for 2014! You are lucky to have an in-house cultural interpreter :)


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