The Master of Go

The Master of GoAfter decades have gone by, I have finally read The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata (1899 – 1972). It was first published in 1951 and then in English in 1972.  I think I have owned my copy since 1997 or so. In fact I think I have been wanting to read it forever. However, this is one of a few select books in the galaxy that I think a reader really has to wait with infinite, inexhaustible patience to read “at the right time.” When is the “right time”?  Only the specific reader knows, but if its not the right time, the novel will be frustrating and will go undigested. Hey, this was decades in my case….

Now that I have read the novel – and at the right time – I am very glad that I read it and waited to read it this very month, this very year.  It is very much unlike all of Kawabata’s other novels that I have read.  The difference is in the subject matter, for sure, but also Kawabata’s style here seems less dramatic or on show. In a sense, I feel this is the closest we readers get to a look at Kawabata’s natural, instinctual style of writing. In contrast, in Snow Country (1956) or Thousand Cranes (1958), Kawabata is nearly flamboyant with his wordsmithing as compared to this novel. In those novels Kawabata seems to write effortlessly and with flourishes and a subtle, but well-earned smugness.  Not so here.  In The Master of Go the writing is spare and unadorned. Of course the structure of the novel is entirely different as well.

The structure is somewhat a fictionalized account of a 1938 game of Go that Kawabata himself reported on. Kawabata reported on the game for two newspapers and it is remarkable to say such a thing in 2022, wherein I doubt any newspapers really matter any more and certainly would not be running segments on Go games. The novel is written in first person, as they say, from the perspective of the newspaper reporter named Uragami. How close is Uragami to Kawabata?  The novel is not one that contains the gross-level of character “personality/development” so common in fiction today. So, it really does not matter how similar Uragami is to the real Kawabata – as remembered by Kawabata years later.  After all, and this where it gets a bit sticky, it is difficult to locate this novel because it definitely does not read like Kawabata’s memoir, but it does read like Uragami’s. However, it hardly reads like some introspective rehashing. It feels “real time” as if we are in 1938 and awaiting the next move in the game.

Maybe this structure prevented Kawabata from being as artistic, let us say, with the work as he was in his other novels. To say this gives a different impression, though. It seems to imply that those other works are artistic and beautiful and this work is some piece of newspaper article. No, the distinction between the works is not as sharp as that.

Chapters 12 and 28 are the most important, in my mind, chapters in the book.  They are the ones wherein Kawabata does not simply report on the game, but actually touches upon the relevance of Go to Japanese culture, of the supposed clash between two shifting eras of culture, of people’s varying responses to Go and similar activities. These are not lengthy chapters full of discourse and meandering, though. Just brief interludes that open the door for Kawabata to consider all of these things while we wait for the next Go session.

Hon’inbō Shūsai (1874 – 1940) is the master in this novel. He was, of course, a real historical Go master as well. In some sense, however his character is described in this novel versus the more historical reports, it is something that Kawabata renders almost meaningless. The Shusai of the novel is the one Kawabata has remolded for humanity.  His opponent was Minoru Kitani (1909 – 1975). It seems that the character of the novel, Otake is similar in some respects to Minoru Kitani, but seems a bit more agitated and unsettled.  Otake’s unsettledness is contrasted with the relative busy-calmness of the Master.  Otake’s agitation also disturbs the reader. It can be a little difficult to remain neutral in this matchup because Otake seems to be such a difficult opponent – just in his bearing and nervous energy.

I think that many readers come to this novel with expectations and are annoyed when those expectations are not met.  It is not entirely their fault, the publisher and media lead readers to believe this is a novel about a game and we are going to get into the nitty-gritty details of things. I do not think any knowledge of Go is necessary to truly enjoy this novel and I do not think I had any difficulty at all with the technical Go aspects. Kawabata did not write an instruction manual or even a game commentary. The profundity and wisdom in this novel is not heavy-handed and there is not any moralizing about the context of the game. Kawabata ends the novel as it begins, dry and matter-of-fact.

The entire novel is Kawabata saying that one time, this significant game happened. It played out over months and months and he reported on it like a combat reporter. Some of it was dull, some he did not comprehend. At some points, though, it was too tense and he would leave the scene in order to get his thoughts together. It was significant to whom it was significant. It happened. It mattered. It might still matter, but that is not Kawabata’s role or argument.  I do think it was a key moment in Kawabata’s life – perhaps influencing him in a myriad of ways.

Minoru Kitani had a cerebral hemorrhage in 1954 and he died in 1975. The Master of Go was published in 1951 and I have no idea if he read Kawabata’s work or not. I would assume so and I would be curious as to his authentic – not second-hand – thoughts on the matter.

Readers need to read this at the right time, whenever that is for them.  I do not think it is true that because it is a novel about a game that it therefore would interest those interested in board games. This is not that sort of book. This book also demands a patient and steady reader. This book is just over 180 pages and could be read in an afternoon, but I do not think that one should. I think that literally goes against the months-long timeline of the novel. Gobbling this one would ruin it. Similarly, if a reader has any sort of shortened attention span, they probably, really, will struggle with this. Not just reading it, but understanding it, I suppose. I think it is probably among Kawabata’s best, but that does not mean we readers like it the best.

3 stars

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