The Master of Go – Yasunari Kawabata

Set in Japan 1938, The Master of Go is a dramatic recounting of a title match between an unnamed Master who has never lost a ranked game and an up-and-coming challenger, Otaké. The game is timed, but with an unusually long allotment and the final move of each session being sealed before the judges, the other player being left in the dark until the start of the next session when the stone is placed on the board and play resumes. This cycle lasts for months, with the master being in poor health and the challenger having family responsibilities. Behind the semi-rustic setting of the matches, the casual gambling on games of chess and other competitions, and the solemn rituals that govern play, however, is the underlying tension created by tradition colliding with the modern world.

This underlying tension being played out along two avenues, both in the game itself and in the match as a calm center in the midst of a larger world–both stated (newspapers such as the one the narrator works for sponsoring Go tournaments), and only alluded to (the Japanese invasion of Manchuria) were, to me, the strongest elements of The Master of Go. The personal tension between two stubborn Go players provided the immediate drama, but it could have been left with just two marginally likeable characters. Framing the match in the larger context gave depth to the description of the game as a battlefield and pathos to the suffering of the Master.

Ultimately, however, my appreciation of The Master of Go was limited by my inability to grasp the nuance of the game itself, which features prominently in the narrative. The book was originally written in Japanese and, based on the way in which Kawabata talks about Go in the novel, I suspect that he assumed his readers would have at least a basic understanding of the game. Given this limitation, I found myself more interested in the historical match and the players on which The Master of Go. For instance, although Kawabata presents the Master as a traditionalist who opposed change, Hon’inbo Shusai (Hoju Tamura) had a scandalous reputation. While at the game board, he abused the adjournment privileges by calling the game at a time that allowed him to consider his next move or, sometimes, abandoning games before completing them…particularly when there was a chance he might lose. Away from the board, he had many rivals, one of whom alleged that he sold his title of Hon’inbo for cash. A rather different picture than the one painted by Kawabata, who used this famous match as an opportunity to ask another set of questions.

I enjoyed moments of The Master of Go, and Kawabata’s prose worked for me (much like a lot of the other Japanese literature I have read, actually).In the end, though, I was unable to appreciate it as much as I would have like. I suspect that there is a Nobel-worthy story in there, provided only that the readership has the background necessary to appreciate it.

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I have been slow in my reading for the past few months just because life has been busy and I have been even slower about writing about what I have managed to read. I am still working through my thoughts of Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer and just finished reading Dan Simmons’ Ilium. I am still planning to do write ups of these books, but I also might change the format of these posts or abandon them altogether in favor of some other type of blogging. The problem with doing this, of course, is that requires time and energy that I don’t have to spare at the moment, so we will see. This afternoon I started reading Jenny Erpenbeck’s novella The Book of Words.

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