Review of The Sound of the Mountain, by Yasunari Kawabata

Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 8/21/10


  In Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut, Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) wanders the empty streets of New York City and begins to view life around him as it pertains to sex. Everything is sexualized, in fact, and viewers are left in a state of suspension: is this reality or is this dream? In Yasunari Kawabata’s novel The Sound of the Mountain, the lead character, Ogata Shingo, is similar to the Bill Harford character in Eyes Wide Shut, save for instead of viewing the world sexually, Shingo views the life around him as it relates to death. As Shingo nears the end of his life, he continually hears the far rumble of the mountain, reminding him each time that death is approaching. And it is through this rumination on death that Shingo also ruminates about his life, including the number of personal relationship disappointments he has experienced.

  Set in post World War II Japan, Shingo views his position as a husband and father according to the relationships around him—his married son is engaging in an affair, his daughter’s marriage is failing, and his wife is described as being “no beauty.” Immediately, Kawabata establishes the complexity of the relationships at hand by layering in both psychological and observational depth, which relieves the book from falling into the category of soap opera. It is interesting, because when I think of Kawabata’s novels, they remind me of a cross between the films of Ozu and those of Bergman. On surface level, many could read something like The Sound of the Mountain and dismiss it as “boring” or a novel where “nothing much happens.” And if one is looking for action packed plot, then Kawabata would not be the novelist to pursue. Yet actually, much goes on in his novels—they are packed with subtlety and drama that on the surface could seem ordinary, but the fact that they are not, only makes them more interesting.

  In the opening chapter, the narrator describes Yasuko, Shingo’s wife, as sixty-three, a year older than her husband, though she is someone who is “young for her age.” Their relationship is introduced in the following manner:

  “Yasuko was no beauty. In their younger years she had looked older than he, and had disliked being seen in public with him.

  Shingo could not have said at what age she had begun to look the younger of the two.”

  More metaphors contrasting life and death (and old and young) occur when there is a litter of young puppies birthed beneath the floors of Shingo’s house. That the litter is “dropped,” as in, appearing suddenly, rather than expected, coincides with the two unexpected pregnancies that occur in the novel. One pregnancy is with Shuichi’s, (Shingo’s son) mistress who decides to keep the child and the other with Shuichi’s wife, who decides to abort it.

  Other moments of Shingo’s lifelong introspection involve scenes where he comments on the fact that despite he is an aged man, he has not ever climbed Mount Fuji. As the narrator notes: “They were words that came out of nothing, but they seemed to him somehow significant. He muttered them over again.”

  The Sound of the Mountain deals much more with the valleys of life, rather than the peaks. It is an introspective and retrospective look on the vistas of these valleys and the very often Shingo is lamenting over not having experienced more “peaks.” Yet the introspective questioning involved is what makes the novel realistic in the best sense. Kawabata litters the novel with what on the surface appears to be average occurrences, such as the opening to the final chapter, where Shingo admits to having forgotten how to tie his necktie. He associates the loss of control for such a perfunctory task as equivalent to facing a collapse, or a “loss of self.” Then, in this rather mechanical task, Shingo is literally at the hands of his daughter in law, who is also unable to tie it. As result, Shingo’s wife then takes over, who also admits to not remembering very well how to tie it. Yet when he feels a slight choking sensation from her tying, Shingo shuts his eyes and then hears the roar of the mountain. He then looks in the mirror and notices she did not tie it right, and so he reties it himself.

  A subtle scene as this could easily be dismissed as nothing significant, but it reveals Shingo’s loss of control, even if just for a moment. One does not necessarily need to be suffering Alzheimer’s to evoke old age or a loss of control associated with old age. Kawabata inserts metaphors like those involving the necktie and also the birth of the puppies and allows them to illuminate on their own, without over-explanation. In fact, most of the time there is no explanation other than how the scene relates to the context. The Sound of the Mountain is an excellent novel, but one I would rank below his masterpiece Snow Country and also Beauty and Sadness. While The Sound of the Mountain shares much of the same complexity of those other two works, it is difficult to compare them, since I have found that Kawabata’s novels only improve following reading. It is possible the same will occur with this one. Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker, the prose is spare yet rich and well worded. Each scene layers upon one another, building a richness of setting and introspection that lasts.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]


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