Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Master of Go, by Yasunari Kawabata

A Nobel prize-winning novel* about a go game.

The Master of Go

Vintage, 1954, 189 pages

Go is a game of strategy in which two players attempt to surround each other's black or white stones. Simple in its fundamentals, infinitely complex in its execution, Go is an essential expression of the Japanese spirit. And in his fictional chronicle of a match played between a revered and heretofore invincible Master and a younger and more modern challenger, Yasunari Kawabata captured the moment in which the immutable traditions of imperial Japan met the onslaught of the twentieth century.

I think this book loses a little something in translation starting with the title. In Japanese, Yasunari Kawabata's most famous novel is "Meijin" (名人), which was a title traditionally bestowed on Japan's strongest go player. Translating it as "The Master of Go" is accurate in a literal sort of way, but you can kind of see how the nuance in English is different.

Not knowing enough Japanese to read it untranslated, I don't know how how much is lost throughout, but I'm sure that given the delicate imagery Kawabata painted with words, and the nuanced portrayals of his subjects, which still came through in all their subtlety in the English version, it must be a different experience reading it as he wrote it in Japanese.

Meijin is a slightly fictionalized chronicle of actual events: the retirement game between Honinbo Shūsai (in the book referred to only as "the Master"), the reigning Meijin, and a younger player named Minoru Kitani, whom Kawabata renames "Otake" in the book. Kawabata reported on the real game for Japanese newspapers, and here he recounts it as a first-person narrator. It's a book that blurs the line between "memoir" and "novel," but in relating the six-month contest between the Master and his upstart rival, Kawabata uses the two players to reflect images of a Japan that is fading and the Japan to be. Kawabata's sympathies are unquestionably with the old guard and tradition, but Otake is hardly an unmannered radical. Indeed, the two players, Kawabata's novelized alter-ego, and all the other players, judges, reporters, family members, and witnesses are never anything but exceedingly polite to one another.

It may be said that the Master was plagued in his last match by modern rationalism, to which fussy rules were everything, from which all the grace and elegance of Go as art had disappeared, which quite dispensed with respect for elders and attached no importance to mutual respect as human beings. From the way of Go the beauty of Japan and the Orient had fled. Everything had become science and regulation. The road to advancement in rank, which controlled the life of a player, had become a meticulous point system. One conducted the battle only to win, and there was no margin for remembering the dignity and the fragrance of Go as an art. The modern way was to insist upon doing battle under conditions of abstract justice, even when challenging the Master himself. The fault was not Otake's. Perhaps what happened was but natural, Go being a contest and a show of strength.

It's the "fussy rules" that occupy a great deal of Kawabata's narration. The Master and Otake both suffer from ill health, though Otake is only 30 and the Master over twice that. They repeatedly negotiate where to play, how often they will play, how long the break will be between game sessions, etc. The Master is distressed by the new "sealed move" system, in which the last play of the day is sealed in an envelope and kept hidden until the start of the next session, so that one's opponent doesn't have the advantage of being able to spend the break thinking about his response, or possibly consulting with his students. (Getting outside advice is of course against the rules, and of course go professionals have often been accused of doing this.) The Master at one point accuses Otake of making a sealed move to buy time.

The ins and outs of the go game, however, are not really the point of novel, nor are you reading to find out who wins. Kawabata talks about the game and the environment and the people with finely descriptive melancholy observation, and I suspect there are subtleties in his narration that are only apparent to Japanese, perhaps only Japanese of his generation. Still, the way he relates everything to the game, and does so in such a way that you can read this book without even knowing the rules of go and still follow and feel the tension of the struggle, is quite brilliant.

I am a very casual aficionado of go. I am not very good. There is one chapter in Meijin in which Kawabata meets an American on a train, who turns out to be an enthusiastic devotee of the game.

I first tried giving him a six-stone handicap. He had taken lessons at the Go Association, he said, and challenged some famous players. He had the forms down well enough, but he had a way of playing thoughtlessly, without really putting himself into the game. Losing did not seem to bother him in the least. He went happily through game after game, as if to say that it was silly to take a mere game seriously. He lined his forces up after patterns he had been taught, and his opening plays were excellent; but he had no will to fight. If I pushed him back a little or made a surprise move, he quietly collapsed. It was as if I were throwing a large but badly balanced opponent in a wrestling match. Indeed this quickness to lose left me wondering uncomfortably if I might not have something innately evil concealed within me. Quite aside from matters of skill, I sensed no response, no resistance. There was no muscular tone in his play. One always found a competitive urge in a Japanese, however inept he might be at the game. One never encountered a stance as uncertain as this. The spirit of Go was missing. I thought it all very strange, and I was conscious of being confronted with utter foreignness.

The American is described as being 13-kyu, which is about my level, give or take a couple of stones. I think Kawabata believed what he wrote here, that go is a game that exists on a metaphysical plane and that there is something uniquely Japanese about its spirit. He of course acknowledges its origins in China, but argues that the game was refined to its highest level in Japan. At the time in which this match took place, that may have been true, though nowadays, the best Korean and Chinese players are more than a match for top Japanese professionals, and there are a growing number of Western players capable of playing at a level that would probably have astounded Kawabata.

The game described in Meijin took place in 1938. The war that had already begun is not mentioned, other than a vague reference to "the current crisis," but Kawabata wrote this book in 1951, and one can easily see the shadow of Japan's defeat in his telling of this story about a go game.

Yasunari Kawabata was the first Japanese to win the Nobel prize for literature. He committed suicide in 1972, not long after The Master of Go was translated into English, and two years after his friend Yukio Mishima, another famous Japanese author, did the same.

You can read this book without knowing anything about go. Go is just the medium. But there are diagrams of the game throughout the book, and it is still studied and dissected by Japanese and Western players alike.

Game from Yasunari Kawabata's Meijin

Poll #1908883 The Master of Go

Have you read The Master of Go?

Yes, in Japanese!
No, but now I want to.
No, and I'm not interested.

Do you like Japanese literature?

Don't know, I've only read a book or two.
I've never read any.
Not really.

Do you play go?

Yes, and I could totally school you, 13-kyu!
I know how to play, but I'm not a serious player.

Verdict: An exquisite read with surprising depth, you have to read The Master of Go to understand how an account of a go game could help its author win a Nobel prize. It's about two men representing different aspects of a changing Japan, and what Yasunari Kawabata thought Japan had lost, on the go board which represented the world. If you like Japanese literature, or you'd like to sample Japanese literature, don't pass this book up because you're not a go player; you don't have to be. Plus, it's short. But good! On the other hand, if you are looking for action, drama, and something more Western in the way of a "plot," The Master of Go will probably just bore you.

*Pedantic ETA: Yes, I know that the Nobel prize for Literature isn't given for a single novel, it's given to the author for a body of work. So my one-line blurb was sloppy. The Master of Go is generally considered Kawabata's finest novel, though.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, igo, literary, reviews

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