loader image
La Piccioletta Barca - Issue 16

An experiment in Japanese form

by

 

He arrived at noon, trudging up the road with a black duffel bag slung over his shoulder. I never asked him how he got here. The station was much too far away to walk from, and he must have been completely exhausted. Perhaps the army truck dropped him off, or he might have taken a cab. But if that was so, why didn’t they leave him at the door? Why did he have to walk with the bag over his shoulder, and the sun on his back?

We had been waiting all morning. Mother, especially, had been up since well before dawn, preparing his room. So, had she said, but the room had been made, and remade, countless times over the past week. I doubt she had slept at all the previous night. When I awoke, early in the morning, she was already sitting at the table wringing her hands over what must have been a mug of coffee. I too had been longing for his arrival. But alongside my desire rested the burgeoning premonition of restraint. Things could not just go back to what they had been. He was different now. We were different.

Last time I had seen him I had been a mere child. It was all so long ago… He would lull me to sleep every evening, softly curling my air, while he hummed in that deep, soothing, voice. I couldn’t bear sitting in the kitchen any longer, so I nestled in the perch on the first floor, giving me the best view onto the street. I sat like this for hours, having just about dozed off when I saw his form appear in the horizon. From the very first instant, I knew that it was him. ‘He’s here!’ I shouted, ‘Mother, he’s here!’ I heard the scrape of her chair resounding from the kitchen, and the patter of feet as she ran to the front door.

He was the same. He was exactly the same. His strides, driving forcefully into the ground, shoulders muscular and broad, pulled back from his chest, and his head, with its golden locks of hair, perfectly aligned with the rest of his body. He caught my eye in the window and smiled. I raised my hand in a small wave.

His hair was shorter than before, and he had grown a stubbly beard, albeit without much success. I tried smiling by my nerves were taught with tension. His voice met me as a I clambered down the stairs, booming past the awnings. As I finally reached the landing, a grin broke onto my face, and the airs of the past returned. The presented seemed to lull momentarily, and then continue right where it had left off all those years ago, when our memories slowly ran dry.

He laughed as I threw my arms around him, cupping my head in his chest as I sobbed. ‘There,’ he hushed me, ‘It’s alright now. Everything’s going to be alright.’

Mother had begged me not to cry. ‘You must put on a brave face,’ she had said, ‘So that he knows he’s returning to a stable home,’ but he was my brother, and I hadn’t seen him for over five years. Five long years, since they had drafted him off to that war. It had been difficult for us too, I won’t pretend like it hadn’t. Not in terms of the fighting. No, thankfully, we remained unscathed. Neither was it the fear and pain we felt on his behalf, while he was out on the front summer spring and winter. No. It was the guilt, that unadulterated feeling of guilt with our own, trivial, momentary desires. With our pleasures, and the self-imposed asceticism that followed, as a futile effort to recompense. How could we deign to enjoy life, when he was off, fighting for his?

Mother was weeping now too. Just as she had been on the day they took him. She did her best to hold back on the way to the station, and again as we stood beside him on the platform, clad in his newly-ironed dark-green shirt. ‘You will write us,’ mother kept saying. ‘Promise me you will write us,’ and he had laughed in reassurance. ‘He’s going to be fine,’ I whispered to her, but she didn’t seem to hear. It was only when the train finally blew its whistle, and smoke rising from its chimney faded in the distance, that she let out a small, quavering, sob. ‘What’s wrong?’ I asked in a soft voice, but I already knew the answer.

We stayed there for nearly an hour, her sides, wracked with spasms of grief, as the next group of families started pouring in. When the new train arrived, she finally straightened, and took me by the hand. ‘Let’s go home. I’ll make us some meringue, hmm?’ Meringue was my favourite, but all I could think of at the time was how fast we could get out of the station, lest we hear the next train’s whistle too.

Perhaps if I had known what war entailed I would have acted differently. Perhaps I would have been more distraught. By the time I was old enough to grasp the severity of the implications, the memories I had of him had faded into a deep, residual, corner of my mind. I knew that he was fighting. And I knew of the dangers that he faced; of the very real possibility of never seeing him again. But I was young, so very young, and his life right then represented only a small, solitary, candle. We would light it with mother every Sunday, taking turns to say the prayer. It was mother who sent off all the letters. Every Monday and Friday morning she would head straight to the post-office. She would have gone more often if she could, but his replies were so scarce it made little sense to do so. The rest of the week she spent sitting and waiting. At first, patiently, consoling herself that the front was far away, but soon, the fear would settle in. What if the postman had already arrived, and François was no longer there?

When more than two weeks at a time would pass without a response, she started eating less, and mumbling under her breath. She didn’t say anything directly, but her complexion always gave it away. One can’t help but turn pale when they do not eat. In the evenings, when she thought I had gone to sleep, she would dial the central offices and whisper into the receiver, ‘Bonsoir, c’est madame Boudinot. J’appelle concernant mon fils François… Oui, François Boudinot… Oui… merci beaucoup… Oui, merci.’ Putting the phone back on its rest, she would light a cigarette with a trembling hand, and repeat to herself ‘Dieu Soit loué… dieu Soit loué… dieu Soit loué.’

Those seconds of silence between the affirmations were always the worst. My knuckles turning white as I gripped the bannister, waiting for that faceless man behind the line to proclaim my brother’s fate. In fact, it was the only time I truly thought of François as a part of me. The only time I felt his absence in my chest, a heavy void, pulling me deep into its centre. For those few seconds of silence, the world revolved around him. I couldn’t understand her obsession with calling. Surely if something happened, it would be better to find out later, and enjoy a few more days of ignorance and peace.

I was young then. Young, and naive. It was not an aversion to ignorance that drove her – if she could ignore everything, I assure you, she would. It was uncertainty, that relentless, all-consuming companion of insanity, that saturated the lives of all who dared handle it. The clouds would slowly build above you, wisp upon wisp, until, finally, all you that you saw would be a sea of grey, straining to crash over your head. I was young then. Too young.

Perhaps it had been better this way, to just sign the letters ‘Love, Elise’ without even bothering to read the replies that we variably received. ‘You’re heartless!’ mother would cry in despair. ‘Your brother is risking everything to fight for our liberty, and you can’t even spare a moment of your time! How do you think he fortifies himself? Where do you think he draws courage from every morning? From us! By reading our words of love and compassion and thinking of the family that awaits him back home!’ My sense of guilt soon superseded my laziness, and I grudgingly complied, sitting beside mother to read the latest series of reports he had sent us, meticulously describing all that he ate and did. I would note with some curiosity that there was never any mention of violence, and for a long time entertained the idea that wars were not actually as dangerous as people made them out to be. Until, of course, mother shattered the illusion by explaining how François was just shielding us from undue grief.

Reading over those letters, hastily scribbled on army-issued paper, I could sense nothing but unease; discomfort at having to bare one’s self to scrutiny, knowing that nothing of import could be released. A few of them barely make sense, concatenated lists of chores, ranging over a whole week. I remember when we first received them. I could not voice my concerns to mother, who fawned over every connective, and psychoanalysed the sparse adjectives peppered around the sheet. It seemed that one’s prescribed meals were a good indicator of their state of mind, and their use of exclamations a confirmation of their fortitude of will.

I didn’t have the heart to stop her, to tell her he did not care. And, soon enough, I found myself drafting my very first letters to him. We would sit over the kitchen table while dinner cooked, myself dictating while mother transcribed. I found some recourse in these moments of obeisance, although I am still not sure if François could say that same. Regardless, he must have expected something from me, it wouldn’t do to show no interest at all.

Mother always read the letters back before posting them, just to make sure I agreed (which I invariably did). They weren’t always transcribed correctly, some phrases tweaked here and there, some sections reordered, and others removed. But the sentiment remained the same; it was a letter written to please. Naturally, I never pointed out the discrepancies to her, and thus, an unspoken agreement was born. Slowly, she began to change not only phrases, but events; tempering my concerns and spinning desires out of thin air. Soon, I had little reason to even contribute, knowing that the final rendition would be the same regardless of my input. I was sure that she was aware, but what could I do? Say that it was all a fabrication? After all, the aim was to comfort François, and if she felt the truth wouldn’t achieve that, who was I to complain?

I never admitted it to him. I was too embarrassed to. The very thought of revealing the intentionally concocted fables mother had procured filled me with irreconcilable guilt. Whatever one’s motives, it is never desirable to be on the receiving end of intentional and systematic deceit.

The whole village was beside itself to welcome him back. He was, after all, the final soldier to return from the front. First had been poor Marcus, who died a mere two weeks after deployment. Then came Jacques, shame-faced and missing a hand, who claimed he was hit by a stray bullet. He gained the sympathy of the women, but the men remained unsure. They had seen such wounds in their own war, back in 1914, and, more oft than not, they were the result of a desire to be sent home, and the willingness to lose a hand to achieve it. There was no way to affirm it had been self-harm – one bullet wound looks much like the other – and so, while Jacques was given the benefit of the doubt, he could hardly be treated as a hero. François, on the other hand, had no such shortcomings.

On his first day back, all he wanted to do was sleep, and after an hour of mother’s rigorous interrogation, most of whose questions she answered herself, he planted a kiss on my temple, and called it a day. We stayed up for hours after he was gone, through the afternoon, and then well into the night. We lit the candles, and re-lit some more, as the soft glow of the wicks burned low. As we gossiped and frolicked, pouring each other increasing amounts of coffee, we felt the pent-up tension slowly leaving our bodies. In its place, burgeoned a budding excitement, the realisation that all would soon be right once more.

He had not spoken much, but his mere presence brought out a side of mother I had never seen before. Her eyes, usually dulled and heavy with exhaustion were now sparkling with glee, and her voice resembled those of the young girls’ in the village, reunited with their loves, and finally free. I had been too young when François had left, but now I knew. This was how mother must have been in the past, head flung back in peals of laughter, with tears of joy streaking down her cheeks. I can’t recall of what we spoke that day, and would not be surprised to find we spoke of nothing at all; a conversation comprised of laughter, alternating from one to the other. When the second pair of candles burned out, we too, decided to turn in, wishing to be rested in the morning.

The following weeks were a blur, a combination of shopping, greeting and reuniting; a state of constant merriment, amplified by the innumerable encounters with family and friends, each choosing their own slot to come and monopolise François, to shake his hand, and commemorate the sacrifices he had made. In truth, it was mother who enjoyed it the most, parading arm-in-arm around the village, swelling with pride at every gesture and wave. Even the mayor stopped us in the street, informing us it would be his honour if François were to dine with him. We may not have kept close touch with the well-wishers all these years, but the sense of a close-knit community had always existed, the idea that an extended family who cared for us was there, if need be.

During the war, we had grown closest to Monsieur Lepoutie, the elderly gardener who dropped by to help us every few weeks. He had essentially raised me, after François was deployed, going beyond any filial duties to support mother as she juggled between the store and the family chores. I loved him as one of my own, and took great care to show it, following the death of his son Frédéric, in the first year of the war. He had been taken by influenza, of all things, while stationed in a munitions factory in the North. An engineer by training, he had been his father’s sole pride, from which a strong family legacy could be pruned into shape. Monsieur Lepoutie had yet to come to terms with the loss, foregoing the funeral and customary period of mourning. It is when the greatest evils are rife in the world, that it seems most improper to grieve. And now that the war was finally over, it was hardly the time to despair. Thus, Monsier Lepoutie lived in a trance, going about his business as though Frédéric had never been born. But, while he could choose to ignore the past, the present often forces itself upon us, and as François pushed through the wooden garden gate, the wiry old man’s eyes grew wide in disbelief, and his shoulders shook with silent sobs. The war was no more.

It was a week of elevation, of transcendence, and an unimpeachable blow to that reality which is time. Looking back at those days now, I find myself unable to construct any sense of continuity or transition. All I see are disparate scenes, each placing itself over the next, tainted by the golden haze of the past.

Over twenty years have passed since then, and only I, still remain. The house was sold a few months ago, to repay the last family debts, which mother had accrued in the final years of her life. A widow’s pension is nothing much to speak of, and as the house and garden fell into disrepair, so too did the costs of maintaining them rise. Her memory was all but gone in her final years, and all she seemed to remember was the image of François, walking up the street with that duffel bag slung over his shoulder. Perhaps it was better this way. That the truth masked itself in posterity.

It was a fever that took him, a mere month after he returned. Nothing more than a sweet summer breeze, sweeping through the awnings. Mother sat by his side the whole time, dabbing his damp forehead with a cloth and whispering ‘Non… non… non…’ I was asleep when it finally took him, having stayed up nursing him the two previous nights. Dawn had started to break through the curtains when mother shook my shoulder, her hair splayed down across her face. Soundlessly, I followed her to the next room, and stood over the covered body. His eyes were shut, his face, free from the pain that had contorted it in his final hours. The damp cloth hung loosely off the back of the bedside chair, dripping onto the floor. We stood like this, without speaking, without turning, without thinking, as the light cast its shadows across the room. Mother was no longer looking at François. Her eyes were fixed onto the ground. Onto the dripping, damp cloth. Two pale orbs, dull and heavy. Utterly, utterly, dry.


The above story is an attempt at a Kawabata pastiche. I say this with some misgivings, as, the more I edited the story, the further I deviated from the desired result, distancing myself from the voice I was trying to imitate, and drifting back to my own. What follows below is an analysis of the voice I was trying to capture, and the thought process which I underwent when trying to put myself in Kawabata’s shoes.

 

Showing, not saying – The Ostensive Nature of Kawabata’s Prose

Few authors read as detached as Yasunari Kawabata, whose works have often been characterised as paradigmatic examples of ‘poetic prose’. Maintaining and developing the formal abstractness introduced to the Japanese canon by (among others) Matsuo Bashō and Sei Shōnagan, Kawabata delves into the human psyche by stripping his writing of any personal bias and interpretation, constructing a descriptive (as opposed to evaluative) picture of a given state of affairs. Many take this propensity to ‘sanitise’ prose from a strong authorial voice as an indication for a lack of preoccupation with reality. According to this school, Kawabata aims to construct an idealised environment within which certain structural elements present in relationships between both individuals and nature are brought to light so that they may be examined as hypothetical, but not realisable, scenarios. While this interpretation captures the psychological acuteness and sensibility of the author, it neglects the immediacy that arises from such a form of writing; it disregards the personal prism through which one interprets a wholly (or at least significantly) descriptive work. In the following piece, I will propose that the ostensive style which is adopted in Kawabata’s prose, in conjunction with his aesthetic minimalism (especially as seen in the novels A Thousand Cranes and The Old Capital), allows the reader to experience the text without first needing to overcome any imposed authorial intervention. Thus, I hope to show that the descriptive nature of Kawabata’s prose does not serve only as a formal foundation for reality, but also as a tool that replaces the need for authorial evaluation with a psychological immediacy between text and reader.

1. What is authorial intervention, and, how does one avoid it?

The thesis I advanced posits that:

            (i) An ostensive style;
And    (ii) Aesthetic minimalism,

Are the features in Kawabata’s style that:

(C1) Permit a reading of his prose without any significant authorial intervention.

Before developing this relation between (i), (ii) and (C1), it is important to clearly delineate what is meant by ‘authorial intervention’. The first point to make is that I am not preoccupied with structural choices of content. In other words, the fact that Kawabata chooses to end ‘First Snow on Fuji’ on a train, rather than, say, an onsen (traditional Japanese hot spring), will not be considered an intervention on the part of the author. Of course, the timeline an author chooses, as well as the structure in which events are presented is crucial to the interpretation of his writing. However, as this will invariably (and necessarily) occur in any transcription of events, fictional or not, it would trivialise the notion of intervention. Therefore, I will restrain my investigation to the so-called ‘voice’ of the author, focusing on the way (i.e. style) in which the content is presented, rather than making any statement about what that content is, or is not. We are led, then, to the analysis of language, and, more specifically, to that sacred mediator between author and reader: the narrator.

First and foremost, a narrator allows for an amalgam of voices to be employed while still retaining an underlying linguistic unity in the text. One of the key functions of constructing such a medium for the author, which possesses a privileged access to the events which transpire, is the ability to ground the reader. Grounding, in this sense, refers to the substitution of your inner voice by that of the narrator. In other words, you can easily interpret the interactions of a wide array of distinct characters without much thought, because you do not need to think. The thinking has already been done for you by the author/narrator, and the identification of a coherent voice in this underlying foundation leads to the passive adoption of their subconscious over yours. In other words, inadvertently, you empathise with the narratorial voice to the extent that you read the content at hand (which you yourself may never have written or thought of) in your own voice, giving the illusion that you and the narrator have some close psychological link. To illustrate the relation that such narrators can easily build, consider the following:

John Mulberry had never been one to discuss. No. He asserted. And when that didn’t work out, he, more oft than not, gave up in disgust. As you can tell, John wasn’t a very dynamic character. In fact, he was anything but. He was the embodiment of a sputtering tap, letting loose short bursts of water here and there, and then a torrential outpour, if you gave it the slightest of prods. On the other hand, we have Isolde, that paragon of serenity and grace. They had already met in class at the university, sharing a class on ‘Classical Ethics’. John had taken a liking to her, impressed by her quick wit and shower of light-blonde hair. But the feelings were not mutual. Isolde had met many men like him before. Men content to act, and act badly at that. Putting up a cardboard front and hoping their partner would have the dignity to ignore all the scratches and holes. She wasn’t looking for originality (she had long since accepted that this was a lost cause), but just some technical know-ho. The ability to put on a mask, and to speak without letting it fall. There must be some candour in that… But alas, such men were nowhere to be found. Instead, as the sun was waning on that warm April afternoon, she ran straight into John. ‘Isolde! Fancy seeing you here!’ He blurted out, evidently pleased at the chance encounter. ‘I really liked your critique of the Nicomachean Ethics yesterday. I was thinking maybe we could have a coffee sometime to discuss it in more depth.’ Isolde could hear the clatter of the mask, falling to the ground. ‘You fool,’ she thought to herself, ‘you didn’t even try to put it on…’ By this stage, it would be fair to say that Isolde was indeed, thoroughly unimpressed by John.

Isolde is direct. She is bold. She is self-assured. Her scorn is apparent from the very first phrase, and no further analysis is needed. Isolde’s voice is foreign. It pervades our thoughts, imposing its character upon us. We hear her speak and treat her like an outsider. The narrator, on the other hand, is gentle. He talks, not so that he can resolve, but so that he can explain. His role is simply to describe the events as he can see them, and for that, we welcome him with open arms. We read the text in his voice, familiarise ourselves with his cadence, and treat his speech as an extension of our thought. And it is here, that the author has imposed. Often, and especially in cases of agreeable and accessible narrators (such as the one above), we find it difficult to argue that the author has ‘imposed’ or ‘intervened’. After all, such adjectives are, by nature, quite harsh. However, it is especially these cases that we must look out for, as it is often the agreeable narrator that manages to wholly replace our inner voice with his own, through the guise of evaluation. Let me first draw your attention to some phrases above. ‘[John] more oft than not, gave up in disgust.’ ‘There must be some candour in that.’ The narrator is in no rush. He is not particularly involved, and, despite explicitly expressing his preference for Isolde over John (note their respective descriptors), is not part of the story. He is there as a third party; an observer. Isolde, on the other hand, is heavily involved. She is condescending, abrupt, and has no time to deal with situations such as these. She doesn’t need to explain herself, the narrator can do that. After all, why would one need to explain their mental state? Thus, despite only giving her two lines with which to expound her voice, Isolde has already clearly distanced herself from the narrator. Her function is to be a living, breathing person in the story, as opposed to the storyteller, whose job is to keep us engaged. The authorial imposition is a tempering of the voice; striking a balance between what one can, and can’t say, subsequently allowing their character to emerge as desired.

Evaluation, thus, is very easy to abuse. Why risk having a reader misinterpret what you mean to say, when you can just do the thinking for them? However, while a dynamic authorial voice can be crucial in shaping the interpretations of a text, it also necessitates the concession of a multitude of other features. First and foremost, excessive evaluation restricts the reader from feeling wholly detached from the text; by guiding his thinking, it becomes impossible to experience the constructed reality impartially. The reader is forced to experience the story from the point of view of the narrator. Due to this, the motivations for a more descriptive approach become apparent. Without evaluation comes detachment, and with detachment, a more elevated position from which to perceive one’s surroundings. Delineating between two such general styles in literature with clarity is not an easy (or perhaps even realistic) task to carry out. There will always be some overlap, and treating each instance, be it a sentence or a page, on an ad hoc basis, can always result in complications. Thus, what we are looking for is not a binary distinction – evaluative or descriptive – but rather a scale upon which we might place different pieces from different authors. A specific extract may bring forth a potent impression of a narratorial voice, whereas a different extract from the very same work may seem devoid of emotion. Further, even if an author wishes to refrain from evaluation in the majority of their work, certain scenes might be constructed in such a way that a fully descriptive account would not do them justice. An authorial voice, therefore, is often dynamic, fluctuating in cadence and pitch. To illustrate the above points, consider the following:

Isolde was walking past the acacias when John appeared, running down the path. His face was red from exertion, beads of sweat clinging to his forehead. ‘Isolde!’ he huffed, bending over his knees, ‘Fancy seeing you here!’ Isolde looked down in surprise. She hadn’t recognised him in the beginning, they had only attended three classes together. ‘It’s John, right?’ She asked, forcing a smile. John straightened up, wiping his hands on his sides. ‘Yeah, from Classical Ethics. I was meaning to talk to you,’ he continued, his face regaining its pallid hue, ‘I really liked your critique of the Nicomachean Ethics yesterday. I was thinking maybe we could have a coffee sometime to discuss it in more depth.’ Isolde’s knuckles whitened as she clenched her right fist. John continued undeterred, ‘I’ve actually been writing quite a lot recently, I think you’ll find my thesis interesting.’ Isolde’s smile remained, but what little lustre had been in her eyes was already gone. ‘I’m afraid I’m swamped with work myself,’ she interjected in a neutral voice, ‘Perhaps another time.’ John had regained his composure by now, but the crimson in his cheeks deepened once more. ‘Yes, of course. I’ll see you in class then.’ Stretching his arms behind his shoulder, he set off on a jog, the dry leaves licking his feet with the breeze.

The relationship between John and Isolde is the same: the former irascible, the latter distant and abrupt. Of course, due to the descriptive nature, the pacing of the text is quite different to the initial evaluative piece, and information which was readily available before, may not be as accessible now. Internal states are inferred from external descriptions, and intrapersonal relations determined from one’s body language and speech. The same complexity is available to both forms, but the structure in which it presents itself varies greatly. There is no longer privileged access to one’s deliberations, and emotions must be hinted at, rather than provided directly, through the interactions between characters and their environment. While this purpose is (relatively) easily served in the third person, it becomes much more onerous in the first. How can one pen down the thoughts of a living, breathing character, while at the same time maintaining the appropriate distance to allow the reader to feel the freedom and versatility they are granted in a descriptive third-personal piece? The reconciliation of the two, I will argue, rests in aesthetic minimalism, a feature predominant not only in Japanese literature (think pre-Meiji haikus), but also in the visual arts, from Ukiyo-e to calligraphy. It is this abstraction of the Japanese, motivated primarily by a union of technical beauty and the authenticity of nature, that allows readers of Kawabata to interpret the musings of his characters under their own personal prism, intimately connected to the voice which is portrayed, while at the same time fully conscious of their own distance from the text.

2. Aesthetic minimalism and the quest for psychological immediacy

I have posited that authorial intervention consists of a directly evaluative style, which essentially replaces one’s mode of thinking with that of the narrator. In contrast to this, a more descriptive or ostensive style allows the reader to formulate their own interpretations without needing to circumvent that of the narrator’s. However, I have also demarcated between the third and first-person, outlining why the evaluative-descriptive divide becomes harder to define in instances of the latter. To summarise, in a first-person narrative, the challenge for the descriptive author is to refrain from imposing an evaluation upon the reader while simultaneously infusing their character with sufficient vivacity so that the reader relates to them on a psychological level. I concluded, thus, that one way in which an author can achieve this desired immediacy between narrator and reader, rests in maintaining an aesthetically minimalist style throughout their text.

The immediacy I keep referring to consists of the features which elevate a character from mere fiction to reality. They are those that allow us to feel and care for that which does not exist, to empathise with a name on a page. The motivations for authors to introduce such relations between reader and narrator are clear; the more engaged one is with the voice of the text, the more influenced they will be from the ideas that it advances, and the more inspired by the images it procures (in much the same way that we (tend to) place more value in the opinions of friends or relatives than we do to those of strangers.) However, there is a fundamental difference between the relations we hold with a narrator and those with other persons. In the former, unlike the latter, the relationship is inherently one-sided, without any prospect of real communication. That is, the narrator can communicate with us, whereas we cannot. Furthermore, the way that the narrator communicates with us is purely through a retelling of whatever is occurring to him, without any tangible, direct, impact on our lives. While this point is simple in and of itself, it has severe implications. First and foremost, it entails that for us to build any form of relationship with the narrator, we must find the information provided sufficiently interesting and significant to empathise with. Similarly, we must find the voice in which the information is given to us sufficiently kindred so as to sympathise with its owner. For that very reason, the evaluative first-person narrative is much simpler to pull off. After all, if the aim is to familiarise a reader with a fictional character, what better way than to align their modes of thought, imposing the narrator’s subconscious upon his, allowing him to see the world from this privileged and engaged perspective. However, this mode of writing brings us back the infringements of the reader’s voice outlined in section 1, and to escape from it, we must strive to find a balance between the two features of detachment and immediacy. Let us, therefore, turn to minimalism.

Put simply, aesthetic minimalism strives to achieve the requisite standard of aesthetic beauty with the least possible amount of detail. It compensates for the lack of this specificity by intentional, and often rigorous, abstraction, systematising minimalist symbols in place of more complex realistic entities. Redundancy is abhorred, and unity of form revered, all the more so when it implicitly induces the underlying complexity of the piece. But, how does one go about constructing such a minimalist narrative? What might it look like? Such questions, delving to the core of the nature of aesthetics, are easier to answer with the help of examples. I turn, thus, to Lafcadio Hearn’s Gleanings in Buddha-fields, and, more specifically, his essay ‘About Faces in Japanese Art’. In this paper, Hearn posits that there are two key differences between Oriental, and Occidental, arts.

First, objects are depicted as you would perceive them where you to simply cast your eyes on them (as opposed to perusing them) in the real world. So, the petal of a sakura blossom may consist of a single brush stroke, whereas the colouring of a child’s face of a few simple swipes, in contrast to the detailed and hyper-realistic drawings of Occidental artists. However, Japanese art is also fundamentally distinct to Occidental abstractionism. The Japanese artist is not aiming to portray a non-existent reality, or even a fictional portrayal of our reality, but rather, to give an accurate representation of our reality, albeit it centred on a specific type of perception. The artist of the sakura petal above, for example, may wish to represent what one perceives when they first see such a flower. Or similarly, to simulate the effects underwent by one who glances at a child for a few seconds, without fully noticing all the intricacies of their face. Thus, this form of minimalism allows for such kinds of perception to be recreated without forcing one to engage in the overt detail of realism. Put differently, one might even say that this form of art takes a snapshot of our first impression of the object or entity in question and then allows us to peruse it as we see fit. The second feature Hearn picks upon is the relation between a lack of detail and a subsequent plethora of available interpretations. This restraint in specificity, paired with aesthetic beauty, allow the perceiver to ‘fill in the gaps’, interpreting the vague placeholders with tangible and real instances of their own experiences. In other words, the life infused into the piece does not necessarily arise from the painting itself, but more so from its ability to procure such images in those who view it. Thus, the template of a single, loosely drawn petal, can be more prone to engaging with a viewer, where a hyper-realistic and technically advanced work might fail.

I hold that Kawabata incorporates such features successfully into his prose, which leads to critics referring to its ostensive nature as ‘poetic’ rather than ‘bland’ or ‘unemotional’. In the third person narratives given above, I have outlined how such a descriptive narrator might function, adopting the role of an impartial observer, and refraining from taking a stance on any of the events which occur. However, in a first-person narrative (for example, Kawabata’s House of the Sleeping Beauties) we require something more. A character without thoughts of their own is not really a character at all. One cannot empathise with their troubles, or even hear their voice. They are a mere mannequin, devoid of all emotion. Kawabata must imbue the narrator with sufficient humanity to allow the reader to care about the story, but also temper it in such a way that it does not overpower the reader’s own voice, replacing their subconscious. We return, once more, to the hazy realm of balance. In literature, there is rarely a fine a line demarcating two concepts completely. Instead, we are given a blur, and even blotch on the ground, and tasked with drawing out its boundaries. As with all such patches, the resulting shape will be uneven, and the rough definition of the concepts at hand lacking in clarity. But even such a rough analysis is preferable to no analysis at all.

I have claimed that the first-person narrator requires at least some form of evaluative processing, if we wish for them to be treated as a character at all. Therefore, we must now decide what form of evaluation this might be. Returning to the previous discussion of aesthetic minimalism, the first step is to remain tethered to the realm of reality. As stated, minimalism is the attempt to abstract from the complex, but at the same time, represent the real. It does not strive to create, in the sense of bringing something utterly new forth into the world, but to capture a state of affairs as perceived by the narrator. For example, our heroine, Elise, builds her narrative based off the events surrounding her brother’s return. She refrains from producing new images or ideas, and from constructing models without reference to reality. All her evaluations are inextricably linked to something that has, in her reality, occurred.

I have not provided a particularly rigorous case for my arguments. Neither do I claim that they are complete. All they are is a rough sketch of my current state of mind regarding the various voices adopted by authors in their quests to control readers in different ways. But, despite this vagueness, I do hope that there has been some cohesion between my thoughts. That the prose of Kawabata is perceived as a masterfully crafted, liberating text, rather than simply devoid of emotion. That the appreciation of such restraint is better analysed, and those who choose to draw petals in single strokes, revered, instead of shunned, by the multitude of realists who populate this earth.

 

Pin It on Pinterest