The Master of Go - Yasunari Kawabata

Despite never getting the chance to play go nowadays, I'm still a great fan of the game, and interested in reading around the subject. The is a classic novel from a Novel Prize-winning author covering the last game of the Meijin (Master of Go), Shusai. The old master, cursed by ill-health, plays his championship game against the upcoming challenger, and his loss is made into a symbole for the end of an era in Japanese Go, marking the change from a strict hierarchy and artistic approach (with all its elegance) to a world of science and meritocracy.

The game itself is marked in the book, and is quite a subtle one. It is very controlled, with no overt violence. The challenger plays a slightly aggressive move, Shusai mis-aims his response, and all-too-quietly the game is lost. Shusai effectively fades away. However, the game itself is only a small part of the text. Much of the book is devoted to incidental detail and atmospherics, and studies of the characters. Reading the text, it really does feel like a translation, in that the style is completely alien and you know that the original author was using words not available in our language. The writing has an elegance, and you can see glimmers of the original beauty, but it makes you want to learn Japanese rather than read a translation.

Kawabata was the reporter covering the match as it took place (over several months - a truly glacial pace!), writing newspaper reports as it went. He had inside access and was in a position to create a great piece of non-fiction. So I find it very odd that he fictionalised so much of it. For some reason, while keeping Shusai's name in the book, he changed that of the opponent and himself. He apparently also altered appearances and habits, sometimes subtly, sometimes less so. I, of course, having no other references, couldn't tell the difference, and was surprised upon finishing the book (still viewing it as mostly non-fiction) and reading a commentary, to find what had changed. In its own way, it's a good reminder that what we read is not what happened, even for books that attempt to accurately portray the past.

If you like semi-fictional Japanese novels, this book is for you. ;) However, more than that, it provides an insight into how go fitted historically into Japanese culture. Finally, it provides a wonderful counterpoint to Iain M. Banks's The Player of Games. This is the pinnacle of game-playing.

Posted 2008-01-13.