FIRST SNOW ON FUJI

By Yasunari Kawabata

Translated from the Japanese by

Michael Emmerich

Counterpoint. 227 pp. $24

Reviewed by Thomas Rimer

In 1997, Counterpoint Press, an innovative publisher in Washington, D.C., issued a collection by Yasunari Kawabata entitled The Dancing Girl of Izu and Other Stories, which contained a number of his early works translated by J. Martin Holman. Now, two years later, it has issued a second volume of Kawabata stories, First Snow on Fuji, in English versions by Michael Emmerich. The two, when read together, provide a privileged entry into the career of this great modern Japanese writer, who won the Nobel Prize in 1968. He is one of the most important novelists in Japan to have a significant career both before and after World War II.

Both volumes have their charms and pleasures, but First Snow on Fuji is of particular value for those who enjoy Kawabata's elusive and often highly sensual creations, for Emmerich (a very gifted translator, whose name was previously unknown to me) has chosen stories written in the early postwar period. While a number of Kawabata's novels from those years, notably The Sound of the Mountain (1950) and Thousand Cranes (1949-51), have continued to fascinate readers since their translations first appeared, the shorter pieces -- elliptical, often erotic, sometimes elegiac -- not only are beautifully realized works in their own right but also introduce a range of feeling and observation surely available only to an older writer.

A number of Kawabata's themes -- sometimes explicitly stated, sometimes only flavoring the narrative -- surface again and again. Perhaps the most intriguing of these is the idea of possession, which has a long heritage in Japanese literature, stretching back to the medieval Noh drama and The Tale of Genji. Lovers are possessed by the personalities of former intimates and cannot shake them off. Characters come to recognize other versions of themselves within their own beings. And many find themselves marked and almost certainly damaged by their experience in the war, a subject that, to the best of my knowledge, has not until now played such a significant role in the works of Kawabata that have found their way into English. A sense of loss and the overwhelming power of recollection are the incentives that push these narratives forward.

The language of these stories, even in translation, is so carefully wrought, and the details so carefully selected in terms of the total pattern of each, that any summary inevitably risks vulgarization. Nevertheless, it may be worth commenting on a few of them, in order to suggest the range of themes that can be found in this book of little more than two hundred pages.

The theme of a "person within a person" is most explicitly dealt with in a story called "Nature." Here a writer, the narrator, goes to a country inn where a deceased friend, also a novelist, used to vacation. There he meets a young man who has come to the inn because he also admires the novelist. And then (Kawabata suggests that this is an "old-fashioned story") the young man tells his own life story. As a youth, he was interested in acting and often played women's parts; during the war, he became a woman and performed as an actress, and so avoided the draft, only later reverting to his original sex. The details of the story are neither sensational nor startling but seem to pose searching questions as to the interplay between character, gender and self-knowledge. I have never read anything quite like it.

Self-knowledge also plays a role in the first story in the collection, "This Country, That Country," in which two couples who live side by side are attracted to each other's partners. But that is only the beginning, in a sense, since Takako, who is attracted to her neighbor Chiba, a young architect, in fact has an affair with someone else, seemingly by default, and so learns things about herself that bring her to rueful self-awareness.

Perhaps the most startling story in the collection, for me at least, is "Silence," a view seconded by the translator himself in his useful introduction. In a sense it resembles a ghost story. The narrator is coming to visit an old acquaintance, another writer, who, after a stroke, is no longer able to speak and who seems like "a living ghost." On the way to the visit, the narrator learns from his driver that a ghost of a woman appears in the taxis that ride from the suburbs into the center of town. The writer's daughter, in turn, seems possessed by the spirit of her silent father, and it comes as no surprise that, when the narrator leaves to return to the station, the taxi driver sees the ghost sitting beside his passenger. The narrator has been surrounded by ghosts of one sort or another during the whole encounter.

The reader will also have the chance to experience the kind of meditative essay so popular with both writers and readers in Japan. "Chrysanthemum in the Rock" contains a ghost as well, but the major portion of the text is an extended meditation by Kawabata on the kind of gravestone he would like. The essay, if that is what we must be reduced to calling it in English, is full of erudite detail concerning Buddhist thought and architecture, but this need not deter the reader, who will grasp immediately the elegiac quality of this remarkable piece. Kawabata's remarks on the nature of traditional Japanese beauty formed the subject matter of his now-famous Nobel Prize speech, but some of those themes are expressed clearly here as well, more than a decade previously.

There are other delights to be found, among them a translation of the text of a dance play based on the medieval epic The Tale of the Heike. But there is no more perfect work combining many of the themes in these stories than the brief "Yumiura," which chronicles the sudden appearance of a woman whom the narrator knew, if indeed he did know her, some 30 years before. Is she a phantom, coming out of the past like some figure in a medieval Noh play? In little more than 10 pages, this masterful writer creates a world, then dissolves it.

All in all, First Snow on Fuji is a moving and beautifully conceived addition to the growing number of translations of this very special Japanese writer, so very much a part of his culture yet so very much a part of this century and the world.

Thomas Rimer teaches Japanese literature and theater at the University of Pittsburgh.