Podcast: Yasunari Kawabata – Snow Country


Shall I come back again?

Tell me dear, are you lonesome tonight

Are You Lonesome Tonight, Elvis Presley

Never has there been anything scarier than the solitude of being alive, of being human. The legend of the old day has spoken that when the first man stepped into the galaxy and took a proper look at Earth, he had said, There are no other species as lonely, as sad, as desolate, as human, and he wept.

As the words in Elvis Presley’s song, perhaps we are all lonesome tonight. And what else is there to do but to wander into this episode on the furthest edge of human loneliness in Yasunari Kawabata’s “Snow Country”?

Hi, this is Thanh Dinh, and you are listening to the Radio of Resistance.

I am so sorry for the missing episode, or episodes. I am having trouble managing my time and most important of all, managing my financials. But we will get to that later. First of all, I do hope you, my audience, accept my apology.

So back to Yasunari Kawabata’s “Snow Country.”

I am no strangers to the unique strangeness in Japanese Literature. Or perhaps, during my exploring trip, I have spent far too many hours on reading the loneliness out of thin air. From Kenzaburo Oe to Yasunari Kawabata and Dazai Osamu, none of the authors comes across as anything less than despair and sufferings.

I am drawn to humans, to being alive. And by that, I mean I am more drawn to despair and sufferings than happiness. And there’s no excuse for that.

Because being human hurts. It hurts so bad that some are dying and others are wounded. The wounds keep piling upon wounds and before you notice, you are not anything, not even laughters.

It’s the same for Komako and Yoko. I doubt that it is the same for Shimamura. And more than them – the world beyond their little universe – I doubt that it is the same for anyone who steps out into space, takes a good look at Earth, and weeps.

Like the Little Prince.

“People are delicate, aren’t they?” Komako had said that morning. “Broken into a pulp, they say, skull and bones and all. And a bear could fall from a higher ledge and not be hurt in the least.” There had been another accident up among the rocks, and she had pointed out the mountain on which it had happened.

“Snow Country,” Yasunari Kawabata

People are delicate. Putting that in the context, where Komako is sitting by the window sill in Shimamura’s room as the sun sets, people is ever more delicate and fragile. The child-like Komako, who, in Shimamura’s eyes, still maintains the innocent of a girl, exclaims the philosophical statement that other geishas feel reluctant to make.

Komako, who had held onto the love for the one man she ever felt in love with for all those years, just to watch him walk out of her life once and for all, is like the Little Prince who had finally grown up. I remember the Little Prince said that one must be sad to watch a sun set, and there was a day he had watched in 42 times, just by moving his chair little by little.

So what is at stake here when Komako, sitting by the window sill, refusing to go home yet exclaiming that she is going hom, did nothing more than just watching the sun set.

Yes, a bear could have fallen from a higher ledge and not be hurt in the least. Yes, a human body can also bear a certain amount of force, and the more we put it to test, the more strength we have to hold on to when we are out in space. Yes, the sun set scene is always sad, and people will always be gone before you even know that the night has come and you must go home.

Yes, people are delicate.

The sadness is not in the sunset. No. The sadness is the soft eyes of the young girl Komako, who is turning into a woman. The sadness is in the thick eyelashes falling over her eyes that make them look like they are only half-open. The sadness is the beauty of Komako cascades over Shimamura, a beauty that is so high and mighty that it amounts almost to loneliness.

“You didn’t grow a mustache after all.”

“You did tell me to grow a mustache, didn’t you?”

“It’s alright. I knew you wouldn’t. You always shave yourself nice and blue.”

“And you always look as if you’d just shaved when you wash away that powder.”

“Isn’t your face a little fatter, though? You were very funny asleep, all round and plump with your white skin and no mustache.”

“Sweet and gentle?”

“But unreliable.”

“Snow Country,” Yasunari Kawabata

What’s the point of such nifty and petty memories? What’s the point in having conversations which you know right from the start where it will end? What’s the point in loving a man whose only love is for the ideal of love itself?

Perhaps, like Shimamura had said, it was all just a waste of time. And though Komako did not feel that way, though for all it takes, these petty and nifty conversations are all that Komako relied on as the music teacher’s son wasted away on his death bed, to Shimamura, what is it but a waste of time.

In her heart, Komako knows very well that Shimamura will never love her back. I remember the scene where Komako told Shimamura that she would write down the things she like. Besides dancing and singing and learning to play music, she wrote Shimamura, Shimamura, Shimamura, times and times again.

The little details. The name she had tried to forget but could not afford to. The man from Tokyo who promised her to shave his beard but never did. Yes, all was sweet and gentle. And yes, all was unreliable.

The setting never strays too far from the inn’s room, where the encounters between Shimamura and Komako happen. The enclosing room is like a cage. And Komako’s happiness is but a butterfly trapped within the cage itself. Perhaps, knowing this, she always tells Shimamura that she is going home, that she will not come by because she had to tend to the inn’s guests, that she will never see him to the train station again.

And here she is, always coming back, always fly back into the trap, always a caged butterfly.

What else is there to know about Komako, about Shimamura, about love? Coming back after a brief break of the episode.

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“You have plenty of money, and you’re not much of a person. You don’t understand at all.”

“Snow Country,” Yasunari Kawabata

You know, this is a fun fact about me. I used to wish I can stand on a mountain of money and scream out, Money can’t buy you happiness. And thus, I guess that’s why I am particular drawn to the quote above.

What can define us as a person? The money we had in a bank? The materialistic world we build for ourselves? The selfless and the selfish?

Or the love?

My favorite song composer once said – and bear in mind that I am paraphrasing – There are the loves that once we bid them goodbye, they were, to us at that moment, nothing more than a loving relationship. Things will change. We move on. And life happens. Until we are old and tired, and we look back on them, they have grown into something larger. Something akin to the lost of a lifetime.

I guess that’s the moment we realize, like Komako, the little geisha in the snow country, that we do have a lot of money – a mountain of it in fact –  but are we much of a person?

Do we feel pain the way a person feel pain? Do we find happiness the way a person finds his happiness? What is a person, and are we reaching it yet?

A beggar on the street said, We are all in a rat’s race. But going where? After all, we all end up at the same destination.

I beg to differ. Of course, we will all reach the same ending. Some of us more glorious than the others. Some die a hero and some live a hero. But we are not in a rat’s race. We are only on the way to build a person.

Be it a selfless person or a selfish person, we are on our way to build it, so that when the moment comes – when our endings arrive – we are a little bit more than a fool standing on the mountain of money and screams “Money can’t buy you happiness.”

“What of it? Tokyo people are complicated. They live in such noise and confusion that their feelings are broken to little bits.”

“Everything is broken to little bits.”

“Even life, before long… Shall we go to the cemetery?”

“Snow Country,” Yasunari Kawabata

The commotion of a large city is always, and forever will be, the loneliest place on Earth. It is where you find people who are neither sick nor well. They are simply there. Barely existing, barely breathing, barely living, and barely dying. They are in the middle of nowhere. They just float on the life the way a dying fish floats in the river, trying to catch on the last gasp of breathe.

And before long, you will forget that you are no longer breathing. Despite having your feelings broken to little pieces, do you care? Do you not? You can’t find an answer. And plus, what is it all for? What are you fighting for? Why are you still here, barely hanging from the branch of a dying tree?

Living is painful, and there’s no argument about that.

So despite having your feelings broken into pieces – despite your life being broken into little pieces before long – continue to live on. You are not the only person in the rat’s race. And besides, a little pain reminds you of everything. A life that’s been loved. A life that’s been lost. A love that is no more than the lost of a lifetime.

And you will live on. You will outlive the broken little pieces, just like how Komako outlives her love for Shimamura:

“A woman by herself can always get by.”

“Snow Country,” Yasunari Kawabata

Yes. After all, only women are capable of really loving. I am not saying that only women are capable of feeling the pain of the living. If you have listened to me for long enough, I am all for equality. What I am saying is right there at the surface. Only women are capable of really loving. From my mother who had sacrifice her life for far too long and far too much, to Komako who never will become a nurse again, only women are capable of really loving.

It is a curse disguides as a blessing.

“A bee walked a little and collapsed, walked a little and collapsed. It was a quiet death that came with the change of seasons. Looking closely, however, Shimamura could see that the legs and feelers were trembling in the struggle to live.”

“Snow Country,” Yasunari Kawabata

The Earth will outlive us all, be it animals, insects, or humans. But the little bee doesn’t care about who is outliving who. It only cares that it yearns for life. And the bee’s yearning for the living is too strong that even knowing that the slightest changes in the seasons will kill it, the bee still tries his best. His legs and feelers are trembling amidst the harsh winter of the snow country. His wings are heavy and can’t lift himself up amidst the snow storm.

And yet, he lives on.

So live on. That’s the most important thing. Like my therapist once said, There are so many things, so many routes and options you can go if you live on. But once you are dead, it’s all over. You can’t start a life over. You can only move on.

Live and let live.

This is Thanh Dinh, and you are listening to the Radio of Resistance.

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