Title: The Sound of the Mountain
Author: Yasunari Kawabata
Date Started: June 3, 2013 Date Finished: June 17, 2013
Rating (out of 5): ★★★
Every book has a story: Chris has taken up playing a game called Go. It’s an ancient black vs. white strategy board game from Asia and Chris quickly went from playing online to buying a board from Japan. At our current rate, our home decor is going to be strictly books and board games. Anyway, in Chris’ Go research, he came across a novel called The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata. Just as he fell down the slippery Go slope, so did Chris fall into obsession with Kawabata. We ordered all of his novels from Amazon in one go and Chris has been picking through them in his bedtime reading. When we went to the Japanese Festival at our local botanical garden, Chris had a bookmark made for each of his Kawabata books and now they are officially treasures.
Chris lent The Sound of the Mountain to me in a swap, in which I lent him Under Heaven. I want to try to convince him to guest-author a review for the blog once he finishes it, but do not hold your breath, fair readers. Chris is a methodical reader and Under Heaven is a very big book. I look forward to watching Chris read it. Though we have similar tastes, Chris and I don’t read many of the same books. We just talk each other’s ear off about whatever we’re reading and let the other person nod along. So sharing books is exciting!
Also, Chris and I have the same book-lending rules: do not bend pages, crack spine, or spill on pages or we will cut you.
Ogata Shingo, his brow slightly furrowed, his lips slightly parted, wore an air of thought. Perhaps to a stranger it would not have appeared so. It might have seemed rather that something had saddened him.
The Sound of the Mountain tells the story of approximately one year in the Ogata household through the eyes of its patriarch, Shingo. Shingo is in his sixties and finds himself staring into the great unknown of what remains of his life, plagued with increasingly strange and violent dreams. Over the course of the novel, he sees what has become of his family and wonders what the future holds for them. Shingo and his wife, in the traditional way, share their home with their son, Shuichi, and his wife, Kikuko. Shuichi is a terrible husband and Shingo takes up the role of comforting Kikuko, showing her greater affection than he does for anyone else in his family. Soon, Shingo’s daughter, Fusako, and her own two daughters come to stay in the house as well as her own marriage falls apart.
Shingo is a tragic protagonist. He is faced with terrible actions committed by his adult children, taking over as a confidant for Kikuko in the wake of Shuichi’s philandering. Fusako has a terrible temper and often lashes out at the family members who have taken her in, blaming her father for her terrible marriage. Though Shingo tries to recover what he can from his children’s lives, he has little understanding of them and is often at a loss.
Most of the novel focuses on the “current” year in the story, but there are a few flashbacks, mostly of Shingo’s life before he had a family. He was once in love with his wife’s older sister, and though she died almost forty years ago, Shingo still holds to some of his love for her (though I think he is pining for his youth as much as he pines for her). Shingo’s marriage is not unhappy, but it is hardly the stuff of great romance. We never see what Shingo was like as a new husband, as a father raising his children; though I want to sympathize with Shingo, I can’t help but wonder if there was something in his children’s upbringing that led them to be so caustic in their future relationships.
The writing is deceiving because it is a relatively short novel and the language is quite plain, but I found myself reading many scenes and even certain sentences over and over, as if I were trying to parse the symbolism from a poem – a haiku, if you will, since we’re in Japan. Any scene in which Shingo contemplates the greatness or smallness of nature feels so heavy with meaning, belied by the easy and plain language used to describe it. While scenes with Shingo’s family tend to leave him hurting, scenes where Shingo watches the beauty and simplicity of nature are usually full of hope.
The Sound of the Mountain would be best served by several re-reads, I think. Really, I would have loved to have read this in high school as part of our world literature curriculum. (All offence intended, Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello: you were the worst.) I don’t analyze books quite so closely as I did when I had to write essays about them, but I think you could read The Sound of the Mountain once a year and always take away something different from it, always have a different impression.
Since The Sound of the Mountain is now a proud addition to Chris’ collection, I’m sure I’ll have no trouble getting a hold of it again.