Review of The
Master Of Go, by Yasunari Kawabata
© by Jessica Schneider, 3/21/11
There are some works by great writers that one cannot do without.
Likewise, there are some works by those same great writers that will only appeal
to a select few. Kawabata’s The Master of Go belongs to the latter
category. Although some readers have lumped his novella The Lake into the
minor works category, I strongly disagreed. Yet The Master of Go is not a
book I recommend even to readers of Japanese literature, but rather, it’s one
that readers can put off reading for a long while, maybe even ever.
It is not that The Master of Go is a bad book, but unless one is
compelled to learn more about the intricate game Go (a Japanese form of chess)
this “novel” (and whether it can really be called a novel is still up for
debate, for it is partially based in non-fiction) is a rather stiff and dry
read. Characters are thinly sketched and one dimensional and so even if you’re
not one drawn to plot driven works, The Master of Go is not filled with
great dialogue or observations that the literary lover will find compelling.
Oddly, the back of the novel indicates that Kawabata considered this to
be his finest work, and if that is the case, this just shows how more often than
not, even a great writer is clueless when it comes to the quality of his own
work. Ingmar Bergman is the perfect example—a great filmmaker who could not
see past his own limitations, often ripping other great directors like Orson
Welles and Michelangelo Antonioni, while praising lesser lights like Steven
Spielberg. Leo Tolstoy was an appallingly bad critic of the arts, often
overlooking anyone who didn’t agree with his politics. So whether or not
Kawabata considered The Master of Go to be his finest work—who cares?
It’s not. Not by a long shot.
How do I know this? I’ve only just finished it and already I have
forgotten the characters. The book centers on the idea of strategy of a game of
Go between an older Master and a younger player. As the “tension” unfolds
(and I use the word “tension” very loosely) the game begins to affect their
lives and their exterior world—notably their families and friends. In theory,
this is not a bad idea for a story, except that the characters are thinly
sketched and we don’t really care about them. Also, the game of Go is actually
the focus, rather than the exterior lives. Literally there are entire chapters
devoted to discussing a singular move and how long it took the Master to make
said move. And unless one is a chess or board game enthusiast, again I’ll ask:
Even those reviews on Amazon that give this a favorable review, can’t
really say why they think it is a good read. Had Kawabata not written it,
perhaps the results would be less favorable. Granted, there are far worse books
out there, but then by that same token, there are far better—even among
Kawabata’s other works. The language too, it not as poetic or psychologically
layered as it is in Snow Country or The Sound of the Mountain.
Kawabata’s skill resides in his characters and the way he plays out their
motives throughout his works. He is great at expressing the underlining
aggression that exists between people—all of which is cloaked by kindness.
There’s none of that here. The prose is functionary and matter of fact, plot
driven, even though the plot is rather dull.
this might actually make for a better film, if a director is able to flesh out
the characters a bit more. The Master of Go fails not in idea but in
execution. Even the biggest Kawabata enthusiasts (such as myself) will tell you
to seek out his other works first, and only then move onto The Master of Go if
you must, for I do not think it is necessary for understanding his oeuvre. I’m
not glad for having read it, but more glad to be able to inform others not to.
It’s usually not good practice for a review to skimp out on a quote,
and so I have been sifting, trying to find something quotable: “The Master had
put the match together as a work of art. It was as if the work, likened to a
painting, were smeared black at the moment of highest tension. That play of
black upon white, white upon black, has the intent and takes the form of
creative art. It has in it a flow of the spirit and a harmony as of music.”
This as about as poetic as it gets, the rest is just functionary writing.
A little more psychology and less strategy would have made The Master of Go
something a bit more memorable and for that matter…quotable.
[An expurgated version of this
article originally appeared on the Blogcritics
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