The Old Capital – Yasunari Kawabata

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The Old Capital

The sting of the needle was lost in the delicate crimson stream. Not a wince or a slight whimper. The strange words bounced in my ears resembling songs of exasperated crickets. The harshness of the sun did not bother my skin anymore, neither the rain puddles that ruined my shoes. Not a drop of tear, not a speck of anger. Could this happening so soon? The one thing I feared the most. Did Kawabata finally overwhelm me? Did the silence consume me like a ravenous shokujinki? As I walked home, the frogs happily croaked on the walls of a nearby pond even as heated clouds swarmed the sky. I ran; my tears competing with the fluttering of sparrows. Windows were being angrily locked, doors shut with a thunderous bang. Those bell crickets!! These lucky insects. How will I ever isolate myself from this vulgar world? Why couldn’t I be those violets who grew in the hollow spaces of the maple trees, priding in their blooming beauty amid the vulgarity of the overgrown moss. Would my carefree life just be a beautiful illusion existing in my heart? Has the opening of the lid brought an end to my enchanted world? When will silence finally annihilate my aching memories? Will it be possible to stand tall and straight like those majestic cedars even when its branches are cut to build tea rooms? Will a man ever cease from being an “emotional creature”?

Bell crickets with violet garbs,
Grasshoppers in empty hearts,
Sullen memory patiently birth,
Pristine illusions of a universe,
Above the friendless pagodas,
Lonely red pines call the sun,
On sode of gracious kimono,
Bright tulips delicately spun.

Serenely, Kawabata weaves the threads of beautiful illusions that refuse to depart from our existence. With torrential flow of sordid emotions comes the want for a sheltering mirage that overthrows the repulsiveness of realism. The vanishing exuberance of Kyoto saddens its citizens as they try and hold on to the memory of Kyoto’s last streetcar; embellishing it with flowers and holding onto the photographic illusion of the newly christened “flower train” ; the lonely roads cry in nostalgia. The clean streets that once festooned to the picturesque festive parades and rice cake showers from the festival floats were now endangered to being darkened by ubiquitous friendless inns. Would the crickets ecstatically chirp if their glass palace ceases to exist?

“The time never comes when a beautiful illusion turns ugly”.

Why would someone want an illusion to turn ugly? Isn’t its loving glory that becomes an escape from everyday life? Would Hideo ever want to recognize that Naeko is simply is an illusion of his long harbored love? Would it bring grief to the cherry blossom to see their ephemeral fantasy being trampled by those who had earlier been mesmerized by its very magnificence? It saddens Takichiro to see his world metamorphosing into an unknown entity. Was it his efforts of holding onto past memories, an effort to eradicate his loneliness? Was Takichiro’s attempt of drawing cacophonous kimono patterns, a cry of his illusion for a fading art? Was the Kodaiji Temple embracing the illusion of its festively lit streets?

“You can’t kick or tread on an illusion that you harbor. All you can do is overturn yourself.”

The demise of illusion births realms of loneliness. The chimera of cherry blossoms vanishes with the falling of its petals. The beautiful spring brings harsh summer and even a harsher winter. Kawabata eulogizes the waning of obi-makers in poetic precision as their journey is scripted from once being the honorific institute of an emerging empire to now kneeling at the mercy of governmental sponsored ‘Intangible Cultural Treasure’. The spirituality of Kyoto is misplaced amid the rise of capitalism. Chieko gets swept by waves of loneliness when her romanticized illusion of being a foundling is broken by winds of pragmatism. When Hideo critiques the inharmonious design that Takichiro drew for Chieko’s obi, the illusion that Takichiro could draw a fashionable obi design is shattered even with the inspiring abstracts of Paul Klee and Chagall. Weeks of seclusion in a convent could not redeem the sanctity of Takichiro’s imagination for its beauty was stained with conflicts between a warm heart and morbidity of reality. To erase the stubborn chimera one has to be toppled. But, when does that become necessary? All those motifs that we bring all along our way to find an escape from our mundane lives, occasionally some of the motifs overrule our very existence and then there is a dire need to overturn ourselves. To think of those bell crickets that chirp every summer, what would they do if someone opened the lid and made them aware of their crystalline illusion? Would that destroy their universe in that jar?

“Universe in a jar” in which there was a palace in a vessel filled with fine wine and delicacies from both land and sea. Isolated from the vulgar world, it was a separate realm, an enchanted land.”

Kawabata validates the application of an ancient Chinese proverb, “universe in a jar”. Chieko had been raising bell crickets in a jar for past five or six years. The lifecycle of these insects flourished and perished in the jar itself. Every July, eggs would be laid amid the glass interior and luminous August would welcome the raring young. Through these crickets, Kawabata delineates the reality of a sheltered life that we humans live until we face the malice of the outside world. As kids we are protected by the warmth and love of our parents and as parents we bestow the same to our kids. Chieko led a similar sheltered life and so did Takichiro when his father’s business was flourishing and above all the city of Kyoto, when its people safeguarded its splendor and spirituality from any kind of vulgarity. The crammed lives of the bell crickets made Chieko question her survival. Her loneliness was compared to the violets that grew in a cramped manner within the hollow space of an old maple tree.

“Chieko herself had placed the bell crickets in a jar, but why had the violets come to live in such a cramped spot?”….. “To be born in such a place and go one living there”…..A natural life…..”

Kawabata metaphorically elucidates the normality of a life that thrives in its accustomed habitat. The crickets in the jar never knew a life beyond the glass walls, the violets never knew the joy of blooming in a field, the obi-makers could not imagine a world without silken weaves and kimonos, Chieko could not have conjecture the veracity of her abandonment, the cedars never knew a life beyond that of being a mere crop and the city of Kyoto never knew the existence beyond festive seasons. Would a mountain accustomed to the warmth of a rising sun know the tranquility of a breezy ocean bed embracing a sleepy sun?

“Good fortune is short, while loneliness is long….”

Unlike, the flowers that have transitory lives, we humans do not bloom yearly with fresh and untainted lives. Thus, in the course our lengthy lives, monotony takes over our dynamism and at times the thought of feeling alive fails to enlighten, even when the blood flows into little test tubes. Kawabata presses the need to look beyond our natural existence and face reality. At a certain point, it becomes necessary for the crickets to realize a life beyond their jarful existence. The cedars can never have the charmed life of the camphor trees. Chieko’s confusion about finding Naeko delineates her desire to break free from her sheltered life. Takichiro’s desire to buy a smaller house and Naeko’s trepidation over Hideo’s love illuminates the realization of a harsh reality. Moreover Chieko’s comparison with the two solitary violets that would never ever meet elucidates her remoteness that comes along with the pondering about being a foundling. Picturing Chieko as an abandoned child, Kawabata puts forth his own vulnerabilities.

“Maybe all people are abandoned children. Perhaps being born is like being abandoned on this earth by God”…. “They do say we are God’s children. He abandoned us here, and then tried to save us….”

Being an orphan himself, Kawabata was always a wanderer; spiritually. His nomadic existence shines through his prose where he pursues his quest to harmonize the simplicity of nature with the complexity of human life. Through Chieko, Kawabata seems to spiritualize the universality of life in its entirety. Nature once again plays a significant character in this eloquent text; the isolated existence of violets not only depicts Chieko’s sentimentalities, but the impossibility of the two violets ever meeting equating Naeko’s failed love. The congratulatory chirping of the crickets when the two violets unpredictably meet. The purposeful cultivation of the Kitayama cedars symbolizing the misery that comes through the unawareness of an uncharted life; the green pines that comfort Hideo’s monotonous survival and the tulips that help Takichiro to find solace. The reader can identify proverbial traces from Thousand Cranes, alas, I desist from making such comparison and placing the two books to be entirely singular literary units.

The silence discovered in Snow Country‘, steadily seeps through the lattice doors of Kyoto .The mind has always been a slave to delusion. Our falsified visions bring corruptness of religion, stubborn superstitions and egotistical sentiments that glow brighter than the lanterns at the Gion festival. Right from ridiculing the superstitious omen brought by twins in rural Japan to Takichiro being somewhat a misanthrope; Kawabata wants the reader to comprehend that mankind at times can be very frightening. A man no matter how gentle can never let go of emotional complexities. Through Naeko, Kawabata questions the possibility of a land free of humans that would thrive in all its naturality.

“Why did the man come into this world?”…. “It’s frightening….mankind.”

A world without a man would be filled with virginal forests and carefree fauna. No crickets would have to live in a jar, none of the elegant cedars would bear the pain of their severed branches and mountain would no longer live in fear of eradication. Nevertheless, it is the man who built tea rooms, the Heian shrine, the temples, the Kamo river where lively tulips bloom; the streets that dance in celebratory lanterns and celebrate the virtue of life. It is humans that appreciate the beauty of cherry blossoms, question the loneliness of violets, capture the serenity of nature in the magnanimous silken folds of a kimono, decorate the last streetcar, embellish the boulevard with festive colours and give meaning to the existence of nature. Without a man, there would not be beautiful memories that keep the past alive, no illusion of happiness and hope. Without a man, there would be no Kyoto. The beauty of human existence marred with the ugliness of emotion.

“Man is certainly an emotional creature”.

4/5****

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