Snow Country

Snow Country, or Yukiguni, is a short novel by Japanese writer and Nobel Prize Winner Yasunari Kawabata.  Published in 1935, the story, about a man from Tokyo and a provincial geisha, is not as remarkable as the setting where the story takes place.  The novel opens with the protagonist, Shimamura, on a train bound for a small town in the mountains frequented for its hot springs.  It is winter, and from the start of the novel, one can almost feel the cold emanating from the pages.

While on the train to the remote town, Shimamura notices a young woman and a sickly man a few seats away from him.  He notices the woman because she is not only attractive, but also very attentive and solicitous towards her companion, who, Shimamura imagines as her husband. The young woman reminds Shimamura of the reason why he’s on that train, bound for the small town now covered in snow – to visit a geisha he met a few months ago during his first visit.

Originally from Tokyo, Shimamura visited the small town after an excursion in the mountains earlier in the year.  Intending to spend the night in the company of a geisha, he finds himself instead in the company of Komako, a young woman who, though not a geisha herself, is often called to help out whenever an extra hand is needed to entertain guests.  Shimamura, though at first not particularly attracted to the woman, finds her clean and interesting and gets her to open up about her life.  Being an inexperienced young woman, Komako chats idly away with Shimamura, who later confesses that he can only see her as a friend.

Despite his initial feelings for her, Shimamura and Komako’s relationship quickly turn into something other than just platonic friendship.  Though always returning to Tokyo where his wife and children live, Shimamura visits the town a few more times to seek out Komako, who seems to be a different person every time they meet.

Not a plot-driven novel, Snow Country focuses more on the psychological aspects of its characters, relationships between men and women, and the extravagant, but tragic lives of geisha, the Japanese epitome of the perfect hostess, and woman.  Though short, the novel delves into the complex lives of its characters and their relationships with each other, which, to those unfamiliar with Japanese culture, would seem strange and confusing. The Japanese have an indirect way of communicating with each other, and one must pay close attention to what is not being said, as well as to what is actually being said.  Shimamura’s attitude towards Komako and his family may seem, to Western readers, cold and indifferent, even misogynistic.  Komako’s attitude, on the other hand, may be misinterpreted as submissive and weak.

Yasunari Kawabata’s excellent depiction of the landscape and mood are, for me, the most striking things about this novel. The loneliness of the characters’ lives are precisely mirrored in the snow-covered town, cold and isolated.

***

Snow Country (Yukiguni) (1935) – Yasunari Kawabata

Berkley Publishing Corporation; 142 pages

Personal rating:  2.5/5

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