Sunday, July 27, 2008

Airplane reading 1 - Kawabata's Thousand Cranes

It takes a long time to fly to Japan, it turns out. Yasunari Kawabata's novel Thousand Cranes (1949) barely made a dent in the time. Less than 150 pages, mostly dialogue, with illustrations.

The novel leads us through a young Tokyo man's relationships with his dead father's two mistresses, and the daughter of one of them. This is almost the full set of characters. The story is set against the Japanese tea ceremony. The man's father was a devotee of the tea ceremony, as were both of his mistresses.

"The light was really too bright for a tea cottage, but it made the girl's youth glow. The tea napkin, as becomes a young girl, was red, and it impressed one less with its softness than with is freshness, as if the girl's hand were bringing a red flower into bloom." (p. 21)

There's a lot of this sort of thing - light, colors, flowers, pottery, considered in relationship to one another and to the characters. The novel is not a treatise on Japanese aesthetics, but is an easy way to see how people actually think about or use the principles - long-lived pottery versus short-lived love, for example.

The traditional tea ceremony is clearly identified as a hobby, one in which the younger characters have less interest. The hobby combines art collecting (the centuries-old pottery) with an additional social ritual. The tea itself seems to be one of the least important considerations. I could imagine a different but not totally unrelated novel about model train enthusiasts.

The Vintage International paperback edition of his books, five slender volumes in all, is very attractive. Someone (Susan Mitchell, the back cover tells me) put extra thought into the design.

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