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The Master of Go - Yasunari Kawabata, Edward G. Seidensticker image

How does a book about a go game win the Nobel Prize for Literature? (Actually, the book itself didn't win the prize - Kawabata the author did, but this book is widely regarded as his best, and probably the one that sealed the Nobel for him.) You have to read this book to understand what it's really like. It's a semi-fictional chronicle of an actual game between a revered reigning master and a rising young champion destined to unseat him. Yes, I just spoiled the ending, but it's pretty much given away in the beginning, and the "plot" of this novel is not about who wins the game. It is based on an actual game and actual figures in the go world, as Yasunari Kawabata, a go reporter, wrote about it in serialized form in 1938.

Go is often described as a metaphor for life, God, the soul of Japan, a game with infinitely-layered meanings as complex as the universe itself. I have dallied with go myself and love the game, though I'm a piss-poor player and not even close to being good enough to appreciate deep strategy at the level necessary to read a player's personality and innermost feelings from a single move. Kawabata, an amateur as he repeatedly reminds us, but still pretty good by amateur standards and familiar enough with the game to report on it for Japanese newspapers, describes not just the game between the Master and his challenger, Otake, but how it reflects the arc of their personalities and the Master's past and Otake's future. The game takes place over a period of six months, with elaborate formal rules, frequently renegotiated (the negotiations being one source of conflict and stress), concerning how many days break will take place between each day of play, and how many hours will be spent playing. This is not a game like you or I would play sitting down at a table for an afternoon. These two men sit down at the board and spend anywhere from 40 minutes to 3 hours contemplating their next move, and might play five stones between them in an afternoon, then retire for a few days (or in some cases, because of health issues, weeks).

So, from whence comes the drama and conflict in this slow, thoughtful game? Needless to say there is no violence, no upturned boards or people drawing swords. (This was 1938, not 1638.) It comes from the author's observations about go, about the personalities, about how go has changed as Japan is changing. There is much description of rooms and landscapes and trees and weather, minute and delicate details which I've noticed to be a common feature in Japanese novels. There is also a great deal of profiling of the two men. At one point, we learn that the Master is angry - infuriated, even. But he doesn't show this by raising his voice or even changing his expression. It's expressed when, back in his room, he politely shakes his head over his opponent's play and discusses forfeiting. He's indignant when he believes that his opponent used a tactic of sorts (to call it a "trick" would be too strong) to gain time during a recess between sessions to think about his next move.

It's almost impossible to explain why this is a source of indignation if you don't know anything about go, and even if you do, it's still a little opaque to an amateur Westerner like me. Reading this book, you are getting a deep, nuanced view of very traditional Japanese mindsets at a time of great change, when the country and the world was moving beneath them. This one game is like a pond showing the ripples. And keeping in mind that not being Japanese, not being a master go player, and reading a translation, you're really seeing third-hand ripples reflected through a fuzzy lens. And yet you can still follow Kawabata's thoughts and see the contrast between the Master and his opponent.

I wish, as I wished when I read Hikaru no Go, that I was good enough to look at a single move and appreciate its sublime brilliance, or how it casts a shadow over the board, or why go professionals can study and discuss one move and its many long-reaching implications and how it indicates that the player is aggressive, weak, uncertain, reckless, subtle, devious, or resolved, etc.

The Master of Go is not exciting. You have to ease your mind into it. It's like staring at a painting by a master; you know you're looking at something brilliant but the degree to which you can apprehend the brilliance may be somewhat limited. Yet though the "story" is merely an account of a go game (and the formal social manuevering surrounding it), there is a slow building of tension to a climax no less satisfying for your knowing how it ends. It's a very literary novel and if you don't like Japanese literature, you probably won't like this book. However, while an appreciation for go will enhance your enjoyment of it, you don't need to know the game to read this book. They could as easily be playing some other game — think of it as Vulcan checkers — and you'd still get the same sensory impressions and characterizations from play even not having a clue about the rules. (The book does include diagrams of the game as it progresses, though — go students still study this game as one of the classics.)

It's a quintessentially Japanese book, but I found the translation quite accessible. I know that both go mastery and Japanese fluency would make it infinitely more accessible, though.