The Old Capital
by Yasunari Kawabata
4.5 stars, rounded to 5
Chieko is the much loved daughter of a traditional shopkeeper in the old Japanese capital Kyoto. A foundling discovered on the steps of the shop, Chieko is raised in the old style, eschewing the modern changes brought with the Americans during post-war rebuilding. The story takes place over the course of a single year in which many changes from love to family threaten to overturn her neat and orderly life.
Kawabata received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, partly on the strength of this novel. It is easy to see why. The Old Capital
is an elegant and understated novel, which beauty is owed just as much to the descriptions of the old Japanese traditions as it does to the story. While the story is, on the surface, that of the coming of age of a young Japanese girl, the story of the clash between the old and new was the true standout here. The whole tone of the novel is one of both tension and an overwhelming sense of melancholy in which the characters must navigate changes brought about by the war, as the old traditions yield to modern ways. The novel was short, the words sparse, yet it may have been one of the most balanced and harmonious novels I've read. It's hard not to describe this novel with those same words that one would use to describe the old Japanese culture. I am really impressed by J. Martin Holman's translation. It couldn't have been easy to fully grasp the gentle elegance of Kawabata's beautiful prose, but he acquited himself admirably, though I do wish I had the ability to read the novel in it's intended language, as I'm sure there are nuances that just couldn't be accurately translated. For anyone interested in the history and culture of post-war Japan, or even those just looking for a beautifully written story, I highly recommend picking up this novel.