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Yasunari Kawabata, The Master of Go

– October 15, 2012

This is a wonderful little piece. Being, in the imperfectly translated words of the author, "chronicle-novel" – based upon actual events but with fictional elements – I could not help but consider the comparisons and contrasts with In Cold Blood: the comparisons and contrasts of which are many, and both serve greatly to amplify the enjoyment of both.

It is a story of a game of go, and, undeniably, you have to know something about the game to understand the book. Most importantly, you have to understand how go is not like the more analytical chess. It is a much more fluid game, a much more intuitive game: even, a much more Eastern game. I know enough (have read books and played some) to understand this aspect, though not enough to understand some of the finer details of play. But I lost only some of the icing of this slice of cake: you need not yourself be wholly fluent in the game to enjoy the text; just conversant. It would also help to know a bit about Japanese pre-WWII culture, but I do not at all think it necessary: the book supplies the reader with what they need

It is said that there is a fundamental difference between narrative in the West and the East. Narrative in the West is linear; whereas narrative in the East is better described as a spiraling out from a central point. (I heard an interesting discussion once on how Kurosawa could not be fully appreciated until this was understood.) This `spiral' form of narrative is very apparent in this text. The development of the person of the Master, of the shifting of eras in professional go, of the understanding of the game itself, all operates through such spiraling: never directly presented, but brushed upon, then brushed upon again, each passing creating more and more depth.

The story does generally follow the play of the match over some six-months' time, but does move backward and forward (chapter 2 begins with the last moments of the match), inward and outward, developing not a story line but a field of inter-playing elements. (It is not for naught, I dare say, that the back-cover quip by Time uses the word "spirals.") As such, though it is, as with In Cold Blood, based upon real events, what The Master of Go actually presents is something not at all based upon reality, but something more lyrical, more ephemeral, even more spiritual. (For the reader, it is so important to recognize -- and the books reminds the reader at critical moments -- that the narrator is himself but an amateur at the game.)

I cannot recommend The Master of Go enough. And beyond its individual merits, I recommend this book also as a gateway into understanding Eastern narrative, which, like the game of go, is often much more fluid, much more intuitive than your basic, Western novel.