Saturday, March 17, 2012

40 Days of Lent: Day Twenty Five

Palm-of-the-Hand Stories
Yasunari Kawabata

A birthday present from Andrea Collins last year, Palm Of The Hand Stories is a collection of miniature tales written by Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata throughout his career, though most of these stories date from the 1920s, leading one to think that these stories are how Kawabata learned his craft. After making my way through the heft and density of Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, I needed something lighter, smaller and more focused.

In general, the tone is evocative and minimalist, dreamlike either overtly or subtly. For Western referents, think Kafka sometimes, James Carver other times. But Kawabata’s work never bores me the way Carver’s does. As with any collection, some stories are going to fade as soon as you finish them, others may have an impressive element or reveal an unique approach to fiction, while a few rank as some of the most impressive short stories I’ve read. I suspect any reader would agree, though I doubt any two readers would agree on which stories fit which categories. For what it’s worth, my favorites may have concerned the ghost of an old man walking with the ghost of a young love. The two talk, realize that they are ghosts, discuss a bit about their lives, and then decide to inhabit a tree and are never seen again. Another evocative story concerns a woman remembering a shopping trip with her mother and her mother’s indecision over what cheap umbrella to buy, a memory made bittersweet by the ensuing destruction of WWII; a man driving a cart who befriends a little girl who attempts to hitch a ride.

Kawabata relies mainly on setting and mood to capture a moment in time or feeling, but he avoids huge changes, cheap twists and epiphanies. His theme seems to be relationships between men and women, the gap between what they want and what they have: arranged marriages are a recurring element. His characters are mostly quiet, slightly repressed and dreamy. Watchers and thinkers, rather than doers. They reflect on things and have feelings, but rarely are there life changing moments. This realization without much action serves to lend a mournful quality to the stories.

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