Pensive last novel by Kawabata, unfinished at the time of the author’s 1972 suicide but still capable of standing on its own.
Flowers, bells, wounded trees: the natural and human worlds meet and mingle in this slender, sharply honed narrative. The title is also the first word: “Dandelions cover the banks of Ikuta River.” A renga could grow from that lyrical line, which instead sets the scene for the jolting follow-on: the river and the town that lies alongside it may be placid and lovely, but it is also the site of an asylum to which Kizaki Ineko has been exiled. Her illness, somagnosia, is the inability to perceive the bodies of others. The condition, naturally, affects her ability to relate to others as well: the fellow asylum inmate who writes, calligraphically, “To enter the Buddha world is easy; to enter the world of demons is difficult,” is to her simply a floating brush, while her boyfriend, Kuno, is a specter. Much of the novel is given over to back and forth between Ineko and her mother, who rather unhelpfully is a repository of oddments about Ineko and her condition, including the tragic story of a somagnosic mother who murdered her baby: “How is that possible? To be unable to see your own baby’s head, to wring a neck that isn’t even visible to you.” An extended metaphor about social distance and loneliness seems to be at play, but so, too, is Ineko’s quest for meaning, the origins of her illness unfolding in a tragedy involving her father. “Perhaps the origins of philosophy are there,” she says wisely, “in that period when infants start to become aware of their surroundings, when they start to see, to remember words.” Why she has chosen not to see may be a mystery, but then so is much about this enigmatic story.
World literature lost a fine voice with Kawabata’s death, to which this elegantly puzzling work stands as testimonial.