Rating: 5 stars
Read for The Reader’s Room Winter Challenge
It isn’t often that I read a book and don’t want to review it for fear of shattering its beauty. Thousand Cranes is such a book. I can talk about what I love about it. I can boil the plot down to mundanities. Or I can tell you to read it and find out for yourself what makes it such a compelling book.
From the very first lines I was hooked. There is no introduction, no scene setting, Kawabata drops you straight into the story. I love writers who have the courage to do that. To know that their story and the characters are strong enough not to need a bunch of exposition to get the reader used to them.
Even when he reached Kamakura and the Engakuji Temple, Kikuji did not know whether or not he would go to the tea ceremony. He was already late.
It’s like a haiku in the way the opening tells us who we’re with, what his state of mind is, and what he’s up to.
The punchy poetic style continues as we learn about Kikuji’s family history and why he is at Engakuji in Kamakura. The description of each scene was intensely visual for me. The minimal detail and the precision of the prose allowed me to picture what was being described vividly. The style is almost a photograph formed from words.
The entire book reads like a poem, with seasons evoked by descriptions of weather and flowers. It really is a beautiful novel to read.
As to the plot, it’s a story of love, obsession, jealousy and shame. Kikuji responds to an invitation from a woman who was briefly his late father’s mistress to attend the annual tea ceremony in memory of his father. He only responds this time because the woman, Chikako, promises to introduce him to a young woman. At the tea ceremony another woman is present with her daughter, uninvited. She, too, is a former mistress of Kikuji’s father and the widow of his father’s great friend Ota.
Kikuji falls for the young woman he is there to meet. She is from a good family, the Inamuras, and is a good match for Kikuji. Her elegance and charm is represented by the furoshiki she carries. The cloth has a pattern called Thousand Cranes. Kikuji, however, can’t settle because he despises Chikako and suspects her motives. He thinks of her as manipulative, because of the way she ingratiated herself into his family after his father threw her over as a mistress.
He talks to Mrs Ota at the tea ceremony and encounters her at the tea house gate as he leaves. He becomes infatuated with her, and she with him. So begin all painful affairs, against better judgement, swayed by desire, succumbing to the exquisite thrill of behaving against expectation.
Mrs Ota’s daughter warns Kikuji away from her mother, and he returns his focus to Miss Inamura, going along with Chikako’s match making, until the rainy day that Mrs Ota reappears at his house, thin and unprotected from the weather.
Mrs Ota did not have an umbrella. Perhaps she had left it in the main house.
He thought that rain had struck her face; but it was tears.
He knew that it was tears from the steady flow over the cheeks.
There’s something Oedipal in their relationship, although she isn’t his mother. Something in the way Kikuji wants her despite and because of the fact that his father had her, something in his anger and self-loathing, something in the compulsion he feels. It’s ugly but romantic.
It brings with it notions of shame, tied to the feeling that doing what is expected of you is more honourable than following what your heart desires.
The romance is brief. Its failure is partly because Chikako, in the jealousy and bitterness she has carried for years, meddles in Kikuji’s affairs, partly because Mrs Ota is unwell, and partly because Kikuji is weak. He moves his attention to Mrs Ota’s daughter, Fumiko, pursuing her against her wishes. Chikako becomes blatant in her jealous desire to destroy the peace of the Ota women’s lives and to control the life of the son of the man who used her. She reveals her nature in an exchange with Kikuji over the use of a water jar owned by Mrs Ota. Kikuji accuses her of hating Mrs Ota.
‘Not at all. We just weren’t meant for each other … We weren’t meant for each other, and I couldn’t understand her. And then in some ways I understood her too well.’
‘You’ve always been fond of understanding people too well.’
‘They should arrange not to be understood quite so easily.’
A tea ceremony forced on Kikuji and Fumiko by Chikako demonstrates the ways in which jealous women hate other women. It’s sad to read because it’s so accurate.
There’s a passage in which Kikuji fails to picture the face of Miss Inamura. He can picture scenes where she has been, the things she has done, the clothes she wore, the thousand cranes furoshiki she carried. He realises that he can’t call to mind his parents’ faces either. It made me try to picture the faces of people I love. I couldn’t. I could think of photographs I have of them, but when I thought of their faces, they wouldn’t fix in my mind. I think it’s because the human face is so changeable in its mobility, its reflection of light, its depiction of emotion. How can we fix something so marvellous in our minds?
Romance builds between Kikuji and Fumiko, despite Chikako’s efforts to keep them apart and have revenge on their parents in cruelty and pain. A beautiful allegory centred on two tea bowls says more about the feelings between Kikuji and Fumiko than any declarations of emotion and sensuality. The complete lack of description of the act of love is the thing that makes it more sensual, more romantic, more satisfying in its elusiveness. I’m idiotically romantic at times and, when faced with writing like this, I regret that modern novels are so obvious.
I shan’t spoil the ending, but it made me gasp and shiver with fellow feeling.
This is an incredible book. I enjoyed Kawabata’s Snow Country but Thousand Cranes is something else.