POC Status Update: 3/9
My copy of The Old Capital came to me as a Christmas present from a friend and fellow reader. It was my first novel of Yasunari Kawabata, but not my first book. The previous year, I had read his collection of stories called The Dancing Girl of Izu.
The Old Capital tells the story of Chieko, the only daughter of shop owners in Kyoto. Growing up, Chieko was told by her parents that they stole her from her birth parents. However, a chance encounter with a woman from the cedar logging village reveals the truth about her past and her birth.
While Chieko’s life unfolds throughout the book, she, I believe is but the vehicle by which we are allowed to discover the story’s true protagonist: Kyoto, the Old Capital. In the midst of the family drama—of keeping a traditional wholesaler shop in the midst of the modern world, marrying off Chieko, and discovering Chieko is a Twin—Kawabata paid attention to the surroundings with detail.
The first chapter gracefully describes the cherry blossom trees, the park in which our characters walk and the tradition of viewing them. The succeeding chapters do not fall short in continuing this attention to the surrounding details. The author takes time to narrate that in Kyoto there were three festivals, two of which were not celebrated that year. The only festival the capital gets to celebrate Kawabata takes time to describe. He tells us of the story behind the gathering and the practice of the Festival Boy, while making these stories part of our character’s lives. The novel was consistent in looking at Kyoto at the brink of transition and how the changes of the old capital were also evident in the people. As Kyoto keeps alive the tradition, it too must somehow take in the fashion of the west, as these two opposite ideas reside in Kyoto, so does it reside in the people. On the brink of change, Kawabata explores the old belief about twins. Twins are not common in Japan. Back in the day, it was believed that having twins (or triplets, quadruplets, etc) was a bestial act, hence it was common to hide this reality by doing separate registrations or in the case of Kawabata’s characters, to be abandoned. It is in understanding this old belief that I found an appreciation of the author’s decision to put tension in Chieko discovering she had a twin up in the cedar village.
Kawabata’s writing is different from what most of us are accustomed to. It’s not necessarily written within a plot frame. If you’re looking for the usual elements of rising action, climax and denouement, you’ll most likely not find it in Kawabata’s work. His story unfolds like one’s life does, it doesn’t speed up into a fabricated trajectory. One might then expect something of a literary fiction, while this may be the case, one cannot expect anything similar to contemporary works of this kind. To describe Kawabata’s writing, the closest I can describe it to is a haiku wherein the first two lines are scenic descriptions and the third line a conclusion that grows out of the leap from line two to line three.
Kawabata belonged to the Shinkankakuha movement that focuses on offering the reader with new sensations or new perceptions in literature. Hence, to a reader who is familiar with Kyoto, it is possible that Kawabata’s attention to detail in depicting Kyoto is in relation to presenting the reader with something new about Kyoto. Rather than presenting simply a familiar Kyoto—vibrant in keeping its tradition, he takes us to a Kyoto that must deal with the changing world. By adding the characters into the landscape, he created a Kyoto that is personal. If anything, to a traveler and reader, reading the old capital would make one wish to travel the depths of Kyoto visit the places Kawabata lovingly portrays.
The book is like a literary travel guide. He talks of Hideo the son of an Obi weaver that lives in Nishijin, which is in truth the district that produces the best Obi’s in Japan. The district is renowned for its weavers and its brocade, twill and gauze production.He also mentions the Cedar logging Village, where cedar trees are lined up and the village ‘harvest’ the trees for logging and selling.
He speaks of Gion, the home of the geisha, maiko and the art attached to them (i.e tea ceremony).
It is here, at every walk the Chieko and his other characters take across Kyoto that we discover the true main character of the novel.
The Old Capital isn’t Kawabata’s best novel. However, it is one of the three books that made him deserving of a Nobel Prize. Also, it is the book that led to two movie adaptations. While it may not be his best novel, it still deserves its place in everyone’s shelf. In addition, it’s an ideal book to take along on a trip to Kyoto.
Yasunari Kawabata was born in June 1899 and died in April 16, 1972. He was the first Japanese to have won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968 for his narrative mastery as seen in his books Snow Country, Thousand Cranes, and The Old Capital. His death left an unclear end to his career as the debate to whether he ended it himself or by accident has remained a mystery.