What’s so beautiful about an incurable past? What’s so sad about an unforgettable old love? Nothing, I guess, unless it involves an act of revenge. This is what’s being implied, if not displayed, in Yasunari Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness. Firstly appeared in English in 1975, and much later in Indonesian translation in 2003, this novel seems to elaborate the two words its title bears into a tale of an enduring feeling of love and the danger of pain it carries.
Beauty and Sadness talks about the consequence of an affair between an innocent 15-year-old girl, Ueno Otoko, and a much older married man, Oki Toshio. The dead-end relationship must come to an end, eventually: Oki gets back to his wife and son, while Otoko loses her baby girl and has to stay at a mental hospital to mend her wound. But this is not the beginning of the story, since it all starts when Oki decides to listen to the New Year’s bell in Kyoto and invite Otoko to join him. The decision might seem so sudden, but he has pondered over it for quite a long time. The memories of Otoko and the story of their love that he’s left behind twenty four years ago drive him to go and meet her again. Only the meeting is not something Otoko wishes to have, for it opens the door to her sufferings, wound, and bitterness she’s barely managed to bear for so many years. What’s worse, it is in that New Year celebration that Oki has a chance to meet Keiko, Otoko’s beautiful young pupil who has a fierce grudge against him for what he has done to Otoko in the past. The plot then brings us readers to Keiko’s merciless action of taking revenge on him for the sake of her love for Otoko.
For some readers, or even perhaps for the writer himself, Oki and Otoko might be the central characters of the novel. It is a story about them, after all. But, to my thinking, it is Keiko who is the motor of the entire narrative. Described as stunningly beautiful, stubborn, unstable, vengeful and dangerous, it is her existence that brings about the whole story, that drives the plot and ends it with another misery. Oki’s character seems only to appear to provide the reader with a premise, and to show what an unfaithful man usually does: cheating on his wife, sleeping with another woman, not having the heart to leave his family, leaving his secret lover instead, going back to his family, and then cheating on his wife again. It is as if his existence and wandering thoughts do not have much significance for the run of the story. As for Otoko, her character is a pitiful sight, if I may say so. Vulnerable at her teen age, she becomes a tougher and yet a weaker person as she grows older. Her forever love for Oki and the memories of their time together indeed have made her strong to go through a hard life for years, but, on the other hand, it is also her weakness: loving too much a man who can get back to his wife when it suits him and get involve with her pupil without even thinking twice.
The most outstanding and riveting feature of the novel Beauty and Sadness is definitely its prose style. The language is so beautiful and elegant that I couldn’t resist it, though rather poorly translated and edited. Each sentence has beautiful sadness and saddening beauty in it, and so does every dialogue, which strongly radiates the characterization of each person. The beauty of Kawabata’s writing blends so well with the practicality projected by his narration that it doesn’t give the impression of being too poetic. Even the conversations felt very real to me. What becomes the problem is the way the book introduces us to the story and how its plot is being organized. First, why would Oki keep on thinking about Otoko for years and invite her to listen to the New Year’s bell together if, at the end, she will only be always a memory and he goes sleeping with another woman? And why would even he and Otoko meet in such an “unnatural” arrangement? Second, the plot appears to be awkwardly organized. As a general rule, a book would have an introduction-conflict-ending kind of storyline, but that is not the case with Beauty and Sadness. It’s not that I wouldn’t appreciate a flashback, nor would I hate a cliffhanger. It’s just I felt like I was riding a roller coaster of a book. When I was supposed to prepare myself to enter the realm of the narrative, I was shocked by the bitterness of Oki’s and Otoko’s past. When I was ready to face the conflict, I was presented with a long explanation of said past and of every characterization. When I was about to close the book in peace, I had to see a continuing conflict. It was really grueling and frustrating. But perhaps that’s the strength of this book anyway, despite being quite unbearable.
I wouldn’t say that I didn’t like Beauty and Sadness as a whole, but, during my reading, I felt hindered to like it very much. Yasunari Kawabata truly has it in him to produce beautiful prose, but this book has many flaws that it made me sad.
Note: This review is submitted to fulfill Opat’s 2016 Japanese Literature Reading Challenge.