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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Sound of the Mountain

Kawabata Yasunari

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To purchase The Sound of the Mountain

Title: The Sound of the Mountain
Author: Kawabata Yasunari
Genre: Novel
Written: 1954 (Eng. 1970)
Length: 276 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: The Sound of the Mountain - US
The Sound of the Mountain - UK
The Sound of the Mountain - Canada
The Sound of the Mountain - India
Le Grondement de la montagne - France
Ein Kirschbaum im Winter - Deutschland
Il suono della montagna - Italia
El rumor de la montaña - España
  • Japanese title: 山の音
  • Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker
  • The Sound of the Mountain was made into a film in 1954, directed by Naruse Mikio

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Our Assessment:

B+ : powerful quiet book; dated translation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 14/6/1970 Ivan Morris
Sunday Times . 11/7/1971 Mary Conroy
The Times . 19/7/1971 David Williams
TLS . 20/8/1971 Hugh Cortazzi

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Sound of the Mountain is beautiful. (...) This is a brief, spacious book full of episodes and objects that invite the reader's attention" - Mary Conroy, Sunday Times

  • "The book is remote, elusive, full of customs, thought-patterns and folk-memories that are totally alien to us. It is all as fragile as tissue-paper. If you grab at it, or rush at it, the whole thing crumples, and you are left with nothing but a host of proper names ending in "O" or "A", and a guilty feeling that meanings have been missed." - David Williams, The Times

  • "This is very much a Japanese novel, and some of the nuances may well be lost on people who do not know the Japanese scene and do not fully understand the nature of Japanese social and family relationships. (...) (I)n general this is a talented and readable translation of a fine novel." - Hugh Cortazzi, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Sound of the Mountain centers on pater familias Ogata Shingo, now in his early sixties and beginning to feel the onset of old age. He is married to the slightly older Yasuko -- his second wife, and the sister of his first, who died. They have two children: the son, Shuichi, is married to Kikuko -- but even though they have only been married for two years he is already carrying on an affair with a woman named Kinuko (shortened to Kinu for the English translation "with Mr. Kawabata's permission, to avoid confusion with Kikuko"). Shuichi and his wife live with his parents, and they are joined by his sister, Fusako, who moves back home with her two very young children, her marriage to a good-for-nothing bum near complete collapse.
       Shingo and Shuichi work for the same company, but there's little concern for what they actually do; The Sound of the Mountain is all about the personal relationships among the family members (and a few outsiders) and especially Shingo trying to navigate the changes he finds around him -- and within him, as the occasional reminders of age -- he forgets how to tie his tie at one point, for example -- begin to hit home. Funerals for some from his generation -- and seeing his old classmates, now all aged too -- also bring reminders of the passing of time and mortality. Meanwhile, the person in the household he is most attuned to is Kikuko -- far more than his wayward son or the crushed soul that is his daughter. Still, as one late exchange suggests, little truly comes out in the open even between them:

     "Do you have anything you want to say to me first ?"
     "Say to you ? All sorts of things, but ...."
       Indeed, much goes un- and under-discussed. Shuichi having a woman on the side seems largely taken as a given, with Shingo only inserting himself into that complication once they've actually split up. Getting both his wife and his mistress pregnant, Shuichi handles neither of these situations well -- but, again, is hardly called out on it.
       The Sound of the Mountain, spanning many months, is selective in its focus on detail and events, eliding (or seeming to) over much. Much -- arguably practically everything --, however, is symbolically resonant. So, for example, there's a cherry tree in their yard, and there's a yatsude (Fatsia japonica) encroaching on it; Shingo frees the cherry tree by sawing down the yatsude -- even as:
He knew that to be quite rid of it he would have to dig up the roots; but he told himself that he could cut the shoots as they came up.
       This is his general approach with his family, too -- not getting to the very roots of the problems, but snipping at the shoots as they appear. At the base of the cherry tree there are also:
two or three young cherry trees; or possibly they were not independent trees but branches. They seemed to come up from the roots of the parent tree.
       They debate whether or not to cut these off, Shingo directing Shuichi:
     "I want to leave all the branches and let it grow and spread as it wants to. The yatsude was in the way. Leave the little branches there at the base."
     "Tiny little branches, like chopsticks or toothpicks." Kikuko looked at Shingo. "They were very sweet when they were in bloom."
     "Oh ? They had blossoms, did they ? I didn't notice."
       Despite everything being so freighted with meaning, the story also advances at an agreeable pace, Kawabata maintaining an impressive understated sense of tension. Grandly titled The Sound of the Mountain, Kawabata nevertheless neatly closes his family-portrait with a scene of banal domesticity -- the closing line a beautiful summing-up image, as Shingo calls out to Kikuko but:
     She apparently could not hear him over the sound of the dishes.
       The Sound of the Mountain is a powerful book, but suffers in English from its translation that is decidedly from a different era. 1970 doesn't seem that long ago, but Seidensticker or his editors apparently felt they couldn't trust English-speaking audiences to handle the exotic Japanese world well. Not even the term 'bonsai' was deemed usable: it's all "dwarf trees" here (and they also figure quite prominently in the story). And Seidensticker's sense of discomfort extends beyond arguably touchy subjects, though it's perhaps most obvious when Kawabata mentions, for example: "How many years had it been since he had stopped asking Yasuko about her physiological processes ?" In a work that is so much about tone and that pays such attention to meaningful (as in symbol-laden) detail, Seidensticker's simplified presentation undercuts a lot of the power. Enough shines through, but not nearly as readily or as comfortably as one might hope.
       A strong work -- that deserves a new translation.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 October 2013

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The Sound of the Mountain: Reviews: The Sound of the Mountain - the film: Kawabata Yasunari: Other books by Kawabata Yasunari under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Kawabata Yasunari (川端 康成) (1899-1972) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968.

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