Yasunari Kawabata’s novel Thousand Cranes begins with a memory: Running late to a tea ceremony organized by Chikako, the friend and onetime lover of his father, Kikuji remembers the strange birthmark on the woman’s chest that he glimpsed as a child. “It covered half the left breast and ran down into the hollow between the breasts, as large as the palm of one’s hand,” Kawabata writes, “Hair seemed to be growing on the purple-black mark, and Chikako was in the process of cutting it.”
An indelible sight— especially for a boy of only eight or nine. While rarely so sexually charged, such grotesque memories do have a salience that more benign ones often lack. When I was a kid, a friend of mine captured an enormous grasshopper in a plastic bag and proudly showed it off to me while we were playing in the woods that surrounded his house. It had a thick, bulbous body, colored richly with streaks of purple and green. Because it was encased in plastic, the thing was surely dying, and had become slicked with shining goo. I told him to let it go. Whether or not he did… that part is lost to history.
Rapt by the enduring sway such moments can hold over the imagination, Kawabata rushes through the events of Thousand Cranes only to circle back and linger on a few frozen instants. When a young woman Chikako is determined to set him up with arrives at Kikuji’s home, Kawabata chooses only to describe the first glimpse Kikuji gets of her on the veranda. Immediately after, Kawabata jumps forward to the next day in order to narrate the scene between Kikuji and the girl, Yukiko, retrospectively, a move that allows him to dispense with most of their stilted conversation in lieu of potent images like that of Yukiko’s figure against “the deep, subdued color” of an interior wall. In this way, Kawabata stretches time, reorienting his book not around the procession of one event into another, but instead to the unruly operation of the mind.
However pleasant the memory of Yukiko’s silhouette, the other images from the evening are swiftly subsumed by an unwelcome fantasy of Kikuji’s father erotically nibbling on Chikako’s birthmark. Later on, when Chikako returns to inform Kikuji that his indecision about Yukiko has led her to marry someone else, he finds himself strangely unable to call up a memory of her face, even as “the impression was still vivid of the shoulders and the long kimono sleeves, and the hair too, radiant in light though the paper doors.” Still, Kawabata writes, “Yukiko’s eyes and cheeks were abstract memories, like impressions of light; and the memory of that birthmark on Chikako’s breast was concrete as a toad.”
In Kawabata’s imagining, the odd mechanism at work here may simply be the tendency of the unsavory to overshadow everything else. Professional athletes who have won a championship often talk about how their triumph is experienced as an indistinguishable whir, while the moments of defeat that led up to the gleeful celebration can be pictured vividly years later. “Perhaps people were progressively harder to paint in the mind as they were near one, loved by one,” Kawabata writes, “Perhaps clear memories came easily in proportion as they were ugly.”
The notion that ugly stands apart is somewhat similar to the logic that pervades most mystery novels. As the author scatters clues throughout the early chapters of the book, one or two are given special attention, foreshadowing the detective’s inevitable return to them later on once the red herrings have been examined and discarded. Such clues are not ugly in the sense of a hairy birthmark, but they are at least distinguishable in the way that a pretty face might not be.
Breaking down the world into good clues and bad clues may make for an engrossing Agatha Christie novel, but it’s hardly an adequate representation of reality. Conversely there’s work like Kobo Abe’s The Ruined Map, which functions as a mystery novel even as it uses techniques similar to Kawabata’s to demonstrate the improbability of a single clue breaking the case. In that book, Abe’s detective is given a single object at the outset of his search for a man who has been missing for six months: “a half-used box of matches from some coffee house.” The first report he files is his investigation of “the origin of the matchbox;” it lasts for about a page, and leads to nothing. Immediately afterward, Abe reverts to prose, deepening the previously dry recitation of observations with the much more subjective effort of gathering them. Just as the meat of Thousand Cranes is revealed almost entirely through memory, Abe realizes that while a police procedural might rely on the facts and figures, a novel works best when it’s focused instead on what it feels like to look for them.
Both books’ protagonists come to operate under the assumption that some insight might be gleaned from the endless probing of a single image, a single object. Abe’s detective notices that the matchbook he’s been given includes both black- and white-headed matches. For chapters on end, he treats this realization like a break in the case, speculating wildly over where the other matches could have come from. Kikuji, similarly, becomes beholden to Chikako’s birthmark. During one of the woman’s visits, “he could see that Chikako was wearing a white crape singlet under her kimono. Even if it had been daylight he could not have seen through to the birthmark; but it was there before him, all the more distinct for the darkness.”
Both symbols are, ultimately, meaningful only in so far as they reflect the psyche of the character who is so focused on them. The mismatched matches prove only the impossibility of the task Abe’s detective is faced with; the birthmark stands in for Kikuji’s lingering anger over his father’s philandering. In the latter case, that simmering emotion proves an insurmountable barrier to Kikuji finding love for himself— no matter what, the birthmark remains top of mind, proving something vague and powerful to him about his own inability to be a good husband. So it goes. The image sticks, concrete as a toad— or a grasshopper— altering life wildly out of proportion with the thing, the moment, itself.
I’ve had two features published since my last newsletter: a lambasting of how the frothy-mouthed fandoms of Star Wars, Marvel, and the rest have managed to conquer pop culture for The Baffler, as well as a report on Harvard’s plans to vastly expand its footprint in Allston Rock City for Boston. Elsewhere, I reviewed the bedeviling first novel by the great experimental short story writer Susan Steinberg for The Nation, took a withering look at the press’ blind embrace of the think tank industrial complex for Components, and argued that Disney+ is the streaming platform for people who don’t actually care what they’re watching for Fatherly.
If you, like me, are dimly aware of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua but don’t actually know the history, I highly recommend checking out “Revolution Revisited,” a special, four-part podcast series from Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. See, the Watson Institute hosted a number of the principals from the revolution at a conference last year and my great pal Dan Richards took the opportunity to interview them about their experiences. The result could be called This Nicaraguan Life, a riveting story of how the promise of a liberal government by and for the people gave way to the dictatorship that prevails there today. You can listen on Soundcloud or find “Revolution Revisited” in the feed for the Watson Institute’s Trending Globally podcast on whichever app you prefer.
Thanks, as always, for reading and subscribing. You can find me at my website, or white-knuckling it on the Mass Pike as I face down the holiday traffic on the way into the wilderness.