The act of reading Yasunari Kawabata’s spare, elegant novels can feel like decoding a fragment of a poem. Best known for his gorgeous novels,The Old Capital and Snow Country (which I wrote about here and here), Kawabata won the Nobel Prize in 1968.
His books have an eerie, dreamlike beauty, and a new translation of Kawabata’s Dandelions, an unfinished novel published in 22 installments in a Japanese literary magazine in the 1960s, is an exquisite, enigmatic work of art.
The translator Michael Emmerich writes so gracefully that even the afterword seamlessly blends into the text, like part of the novel. I read Dandelions in one sitting.
Dandelions is an intense, peculiar book…. It makes me think of a blurry photograph whose streaked colors and lack of clarity call to mind the hands gripping the camera, even though they are not there in the frame. If the cameraman had been able to retake the photo, we would have been left with a sharper, more focused image, but it would not have communicated the same messy, vibrant warmth.
Written in the form of a conversation between a man and a woman who have reluctantly left a young woman in a mental asylum, this strange novel has a surreal and dreamlike mood. The woman, who Kawabata calls only “the mother of Ineko,” is adamant that her daughter needs treatment for her strange disorder, an intermittent inability to see body parts and other things in her range of vision. (This disorder exists: it is a glitch in somatognosia, our ability to see body parts.) The first time it happened to Ineko was during a ping-pong tournament, when she suddenly could not see the ball. Now it happens when she and her fiance, Kuno, are intimate: his body slowly disappears from view.
Kuno thinks her symptoms are trivial and that she will recover once they are married. The mother of Ineko vehemently disagrees. Kuno respects her, but he wants to go back to the asylum and retrieve Ineko.
Meanwhile, he discusses their own selective omissions of sight, which may or may not be glitches in somatognosia. On their walk back to the town, he has seen a white rat and a white dandelion, which she claims were not there and do not exist. She has noticed a tree which he did not see; he says it may not exist. And she spots a boy who looks like a dandelion or a fairy; Kuno says he is just an ordinary boy.
Told that by the doctor that the patients take turns ringing the temple’s bell as a therapeutic measure, Kuno analyzes the tone of Ineko’s ringing (she is scheduled to ring it at 3). Later, at the inn where he and Ineko’s mother stay the night, the bell rings again at 9 and he invents a story about the patient who rings it.
The mother is far too pragmatic to think in narrative form, but she reveals Ineko’s unhappy past. When Ineko was a child, riding side by side on a trail with her father, who taught at a riding school, his horse slipped over the cliff and both he and the horse died. At the exact moment, Ineko fainted on her own horse. And the mother connects this fainting incident to Ineko’s disorder.
We never know what Ineko thinks, but I couldn’t help but hope that Kuno would go back for her. And yet her mother has a point: it would be traumatic for a young bride not to be able to see her husband’s body parts.
Yes, this is very strange, but the writing is beautiful. I seldom like unfinished novels, but this one is brilliant.