Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Master of Go

by Yasunari Kawabata, 181 pages

Nobel Laureate. This slim work featurs a character study of the titular figure, as enacting and being embodied in an epic game of Go. This particular game, built up to and then shown in high amount of detail, is between the aging Master and a young up and comer, and the clashing of styles becomes an embodiment of different generations and underlying philosophies more than individual personalities.

The best testiment I can give to the book is that, although I don’t really understand Go and have little enthusiasm for this general cultural form, I still found the book extremely intense and even exciting. For all that the conflict is born from a long-thought out board game challenge done in a largely amicable encounter the author effectively conveys a sense of high stakes and considerable momentum behind the events of the story. Through small little character details and a lot of beautiful language the novel becomes ultimately gripping and powerful, and its way of embodying the main questions of age, memory, change and ritual is effective.

In reading this work I was reminded a lot of Banks’ The Player of Games, and the science fictional enactment of a very similar scenario. The main differences, beyond the presence of a genre context and associated invented future, are that Banks’ work has it more of a face off between an insider to a depicted society and an outsider to it, and that the issue of politics is explicitly centered. In fact, The Master of Go has almost no direct reference to politics, and largely plays out its form of contrast on a more cultural and aesthetic inter-generational level. This absence appears odd, given the book is written in the 70s and set int he 30s, given how the process of Japanese imperialism and the war went there seems a lot of rich potential to bring in that angle of a conflict between old and new.

Nevertheless, what we get in this book is appealing and worthwhile, due in large part to the command over the story and the simple yet well-formed prose by which it is expressed.

Worse than: The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
Better than: The Last Hawk by Catherien Asaro

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