Blood, Sweat, and Tea

by Kenneth Champeon, Oct 16, 2003 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

In this century, Japan has been the economic and cultural dynamo of Asia. But lately, as Western economists endlessly remind us, the dynamo is running down. Soon China may usurp Japan's place on the regional throne. Of Asian Nobel Prize-winning authors, all were Japanese but one until 2000, when Chinese Gao Xingjian took the prize. The torch has been passed in literature, in other words, and other measures of Chinese ascendancy are likely to follow.

Yasunari Kawabata was one of the Japanese authors that seduced the Swedes, and like his countryman and fellow author Yukio Mishima, he died by his own hand. Perhaps there is some attraction in the somber Lapland for suicides: a Finnish acquaintance of mine recently and surprisingly declared Beauty and Sadness his all-time favorite novel. In any case, it might not be surprising that the only novel of Kawabata's regularly appearing on bookshelves in Thailand bears the title that it does. Taken in sum, beauty and sadness imply that bittersweet melancholy, that too strong sensitivity to life's best and worst offerings, that often cause an artist to take the leap into not-life, a prolific author into a final silence. As Kawabata points out, the Japanese character for "think" also means "yearn for," "be unable to forget," "be sad."

Kawabata's novel concerns a novelist named Oki. At first blush, this apparent narcissism on Kawabata's part is a put-off: poems about poets, novels about novelists - surely literature has not become so hopelessly self-involved, so unimaginative? But soft. Expect no scenes of a sluggish writer glowering at his blank foolscap. This novelist is critical to the plot.

Oki's most famous novel is A Girl of Sixteen, a roughly true-to-life account of his love affair with a Lolita-like nymphet, Otoko. So far, so weird. But at the time of the affair, he was a married adult and had a child to boot. Worse, Otoko became pregnant. Lucky for Oki, the baby died soon after its delivery. When Otoko's mother forces her to drop her Humbert Humbert, abject Otoko dines on sleeping pills and nearly dies. Psychiatry intervenes and the affair ends, though the lovers still love. Twenty-four years pass, and in the meantime Oki's wife Fumiko masochistically types out the manuscript of A Girl of Sixteen, but guiltlessly enjoys the profits therefrom.

Time, it is said, heals all. But wounds leave permanent reminders of themselves: scars. Oki decides that he would like to see Otoko again, and he goes to see her in Kyoto under the pretext of hearing that city's New Year's Eve bells. Otoko is still beautiful, and she has become an accomplished painter, but she is diffident, different. She quaffs rice wine and shares the company of geisha girls. She has also taken on a female lover and painting protegee, Keiko. Ravishingly beautiful but sinister Keiko sets out to avenge Oki's destruction of Otoko's life, by seducing andor destroying Oki andor his son Taichiro. Otoko protests; Keiko persists.

Japan is cherry blossoms, stone gardens, still ponds, haiku - a place of unparalleled civility and artistic refinement. Japan also is (or was) seppuku, samurai, fascism, and the Rape of Nanking - a place of unparalleled passion and animalistic violence. In Japan it is possible to disembowel oneself politely. Mishima's suicide, for example, was seen by some as crude: not because his head was severed, but because the act was public. When Fumiko learns of Oki's adultery, she bites her tongue until Oki "saw blood trickling between her lips." Keiko's way of showing affection toward Otoko is to bite Otoko's fingers just short of breaking the skin. While shaving Keiko's face, "the thought had come to Otoko that if she thrust her razor into this lovely throat, Keiko would die." And young Otoko sinks her teeth into Oki's arm, draws blood, and licks the wound.

Kawabata's erotica is not always so Transylvanian. When Keiko has succeeded in seducing Taichiro, there follows this unforgettably titillating exchange, so to speak:

"'Let me have some tea,' she whispered. He picked up the cup and held it to her. 'From your mouth.'

"He took some tea in his mouth and let it seep little by little between her lips. Eyes closed, head tilted back, Keiko sipped the tea. Except for her lips and throat, she was inert.

"'More,' she said, still not moving. Taichiro took another mouthful of tea, and gave it to her mouth-to-mouth. 'Ah, that was good.' Keiko opened her eyes. 'I could die now. If only it had been poison.... I'm done for. Done for. And so are you.'"

Tea rather than blood, but note that Kawabata cannot help but have Keiko allude to her devilish designs. Elsewhere, Keiko doesn't always chomp down on Otoko's fingers, but nibbles on them. And Kawabata's descriptions of the female form combine a painter's delicacy with a poet's linguistic precision. Flowers are scattered all over the book, and never without the usual O'Keeffeish associations.

The first time I read Beauty and Sadness over a year ago, when I finished the book my mind felt like my stomach after a dinner of Japanese food: full but not sated. Reading the book was like reading a reflecting pool. It was hard to imagine the author being anything but Japanese.

But on a second and third reading, it becomes clear that this apparent simplicity and purity is deceiving. As the book opens, Oki is on his train to Kyoto. He watches a swivel chair swing back and forth while all the others remain still. Were Oki and Kawabata not artists, they would think nothing of this, nor would a cursory reader. Instead, Oki later remarks that "it was as if he saw his own loneliness silently turning round and round within his heart." This inability to separate the material world from one's own emotions is the artist's unique affliction, and not uniquely Japanese.

For the artist, beauty is never beauty merely. Beauty is elusive and fleeting, and the recognition of this always brings sadness in its train. A cigar is sometimes just a cigar, as Freud said; but contra Gertrude Stein, a rose is almost never only a rose.

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Review of Yasunari Kawabata's Beauty and Sadness, Tuttle Publishing, 2000.

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