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◌  “The Master of Go”

1 July 2009

The Master of Go, by Yasunari Kawabata, translated by Edward Seidensticker, ISBN 9780679761068.

This is the fictionalized story of a famous go match played in Japan from June to December 1938. It’s in the muted, insightful, self-conscious style to be expected from a distinguished pre-postmodern Japanese novelist. (Kawabata won the Nobel Prize in literature and said that this, not his conventional fiction, was his best work.) You don’t have to understand go to follow the story.

It’s the retirement match of the Master, the leading player of his time, against young Otaké, who had beaten his teachers to play here. The Master is a remnant of Meiji culture, apparently oblivious of modernities like strict tournament rules and imperfect respect for elders. Otaké is young and, although kind and brilliant, both over- and under-confident.

By volume, the book is mostly stage business. Kawabata was a journalist at the real match, and it reads like excerpts from his notebook. It’s page after page of what the players look like as they play, their remarks, delays caused by weather and the Master’s health, compromises over procedure, family and colleagues visiting, brief analysis from experts, conversations among spectators, lodging arrangements, Otaké’s health, Otaké’s child’s health, how revered the Master is, what flowers are in bloom, how the players spend their evenings, and so on.

I read the first several chapters in a sitting (they’re very short) and was bored and disappointed. The reviews I’d seen were all worshipful, but perhaps it had been selection bias – that only go nerds, weaboos, and lit snobs were bothering to read it, and of course they would get off on meticulously understated descriptions of a hair in the Master’s eyebrow. I put it down for six months. But when I took it on a taco run last week (nice spicy calamari), the ingenuity of the book snuck up on me. Now I want to start it over.

The heap of little fragments becomes a big mosaic, full of interlocking, overlapping, ambiguous images, refigured in each chapter. Seeing this helped explain many things I’ve disliked which must have been trying for this effect. The closest thing I can think of that worked so well is The Old Man and the Sea. If you start the book and it seems like some kind of experiment in boringness, stick with it to the middle – it took that long for me, at least, to see what’s going on.

The Master loses the game. Seidensticker, the translator, mentions the big subtext up front in his introduction: traditional Japan losing to modernity. But it’s also a portrait of a dying old man. It’s a meditation on competition. It’s a story about the culture of an obsession. It’s a tragedy about a young man trying to honor an old master by winning against him. It’s a drama about how a complex contest on a board turns into a complex contest over rules and procedures, and a psychological novel about how the Master, Otaké, and the narrator need and use each other. And of course it’s a largely historical account of a particular go game. Any one of these could be a worthwhile story, and making them all a single story, a single story which seems spare and elegant, is a story in itself.

For an example of Kawataba’s subtlety, take the allegory of cultural defeat. Any line you might try to point to and say this is part of that theme turns out to say something a little different. The only open reference to Westernization is in chapter 12, where the narrator complains about it for a couple pages, but even that is tinged with doubt and unreliability: he complains about the influence of newspapers, but he’s a newspaper reporter; he both blames and doesn’t blame Otaké; he doesn’t seem to know whether the Master should be forgiven for his faults or doesn’t have any to be forgiven. In places (like his half-hidden fear of Otaké) the narrator might even be a sketch of someone angry at social change who understands neither the change nor his own anger. And so on – wherever you look at how he builds even the simplest ideas, there’s complexity.

I like a dense book, and this is one of the densest I’ve read, especially after I thought it was going to be fluff. It seems much longer than it is.

The Master describes his own style as vague. In go, this can be great power: the ability to put a stone where it looks useless, but then use it; to play so well that the opponent can’t tell what you’re getting at until it’s happening; to skip the obvious moves. A lot of this kind of vagueness is in the book.