Unspoken Cultural Norms
Kawabata conveys the unspoken rules of Japanese society through the actions of his characters. As Shimamura catches glimpses of Yoko in the train “window-mirror” instead of looking at her directly, I sensed the tight expectations he was controlling himself with, and then he “hastily lowered his eyes….it seemed wrong to look their way again.” Shimamura is not a shy man in general, as can be seen by his behavior with Komako, but he is careful about his public behavior. This juxtaposition tells the story of a culture where reputations are important.
Kawabata’s characters often do not say what they mean and their actions depart from their words. This is especially true between Komako and Shimamura. Toward the end of the book Komako is coming in and out of Shimamura’s room as she is supposed to be entertaining guests. She sends Shimamura a note that she is enjoying the party but then she shows up in his room only to tell him how much she likes sake and that she has to get back to work. So much tension lives under the surface of this writing as the dialogue and action conflict. I got the sense that Komako was checking in on Shimamura over and over again waiting for him to have missed her but she wasn’t really gone long enough for him to miss her.
Kawabata also creates friction with the dialogue between Komako and Shimamura. In the initial exchange between Komako and Shimamura, he never asks her directly for a prostitute, he only ever says “geisha,” but she understands his meaning and reacts to the meaning rather than the word. Komako often contradicts herself and it creates a feeling of desperate play between them as in the following exchange:
“Please go back to Tokyo.”
“As a matter of fact, I was thinking of going back tomorrow.”
“No! Why are you going back?” She looked up, startled as though aroused from sleep.
In these three short lines, Kawabata is able to display Komako’s ambivalence, the games she is playing with Shimamura, and what is either Shimamura’s ignorance of the games or refusal to allow her to manipulate him. This exchange not only helps define the characters but it also illustrates the dynamic between them. This push-pull exchange defines their relationship throughout the novel and often it is so sad that I was not sure whether Komako was in fact manipulating him or whether she was terribly conflicted about her own desires.
Kawabata uses a lot of atmospheric description in the novel and this carries some of the weight of the narrative as in this passage where Shimamura is leaving Komako and the snow country: “The train climbed the north slope of the Border Range into the long tunnel….The dim brightness of the winter afternoon seemed to have been sucked into the earth….There was no snow on the south slope.” When Shimamura travels through that country he is entering an entirely different and darker world. I’ve said before how much I love atmospheric description. In a quiet novel like this one, it adds depth and complexity to a relatively simple narrative.
In my novel, Polska, 1994, I dealt with a group of teenagers. Teenagers are contradictory by nature but it can be difficult to effectively illustrate indecision. I would tried to borrow the friction Kawabata creates between his characters and the way he portrays their indecision. Kawabata also reminded me that every detail counts. His was a wholly imagined world I can learn from.
If this review made you want to read the book, pick up a copy of Snow Country from Powell’s Books. Your purchase keeps indie booksellers in business and I receive a commission.