Friday, 3 June 2011

More than Black and White

It's that time of year again :)  Belezza, of Dolce Belezza, has sent out the invitation to participate in her fifth Japanese Literature Challenge, and, for the third year in a row, I will be participating.  To complete the challenge, you only need to read one Japanese book, but as this is one of my specialist areas, I would imagine that I'll be looking to complete a dozen or so before the end of the challenge (the 31st of January, 2012).  And, entirely (un)coincidentally, here's a review I made earlier...

The Master of Go (translated by Edward Seidensticker) is Yasunari Kawabata's semi-fictional account of a true event, a championship match of Go (an Oriental game played on a board with black and white counters) between the Master and a younger, more aggressive opponent.  The match took place in 1938, and Kawabata actually covered the match for a Japanese newspaper, later turning his heavily descriptive reports into a book.

The result of the match, and the Master's subsequent death, are revealed at the very start of the book, and it is clear that the story has little to do with the details of the match, or even the result.  Rather, the novel is a magnificent detailed psychological portrayal of a person obsessed with the game, a man whose life has been spent improving his understanding of the tactics and the more intangible essence of the art.

The Master is a frail old man, at times taciturn and grumpy, at others garrulous and in need of company, obsessed with spending his free time playing all kinds of games with anyone (un)fortunate enough to be around.  His total focus while at the board, and his 'vagueness' away from it, are in contrast to the challenger's constant chatter during play.  This clash is to be his swansong, his final match at the top level, and the tense atmosphere in the resort where the two players find themselves sealed off from the outside world gradually becomes unbearable, both for the players and the observers.  Mind you, if you were watching - or playing - a game for six months, your nerves would be slightly frayed too.

The match is actually more than a battle between two individuals; it is a changing of the guard, a passing away of the old and an attempt to usher in a new, more democratic age of Go.  Rather than deferring to the Master's wishes on rules, as has traditionally been the case, the association sets down stringent conditions, treating both players as equals.  As the game progresses, however, you begin to wonder whether the conditions are so equal after all - perhaps they have been loaded against the Master...

It is the narrator, a thinly disguised Kawabata, who points us in this direction.  In the vein of one of Kazuo Ishiguro's less than trustworthy speakers, he muses, considers and suggests, all without committing himself, pointing out irregularities in proceedings, hinting at events happening beneath the surface, but always letting the reader decipher the meaning he is half concealing.  Has the schedule been designed to grind down the old man's health?  Is the Master more concerned with the spirit of the game than the actual result?  That's up to you, dear reader, to decide.

Most readers who consider starting this novel are a little daunted by the subject matter, and this is probably the one drawback of this book.  While the details are, for the most part, of little relevance, there are a few sections where the game takes over (and where my attention levels abruptly dropped).  For Western readers, a more fictional approach would probably have worked better, with even more focus on the players, especially during the breaks between sessions, and less emphasis on the play.  Of course, it wasn't produced for our benefit, so we'll just have to take it as it was written :)

All in all, The Master of Go is another wonderful piece of J-Lit and a worthy addition to my quickly expanding Japanese mini-library (the Chinese have been expelled from the top shelf, and an invasion of the Russian-held middle shelves is only a matter of time).  Despite the minor quibbles noted in the previous paragraph, this has probably been my favourite long Kawabata work so far (my favourite work would probably still be the long short story The Izu Dancer), and I'm keen to move on to the next one.  So, when are the Book Depository and Abe Books having their next 10% off sale?