The Master of Go

by katystreet

By Yasunari Kawabata. Translated from Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker.

This novel chronicles the last Go game of the Master of Go in Japan as he takes on a younger challenger. It’s actually mostly true, and Kawabata reported on the game for a newspaper at the time. A co-worker has been teaching a couple of us at work how to play Go, so I had a little bit of context for understanding the game which is occasionally detailed in diagrams. Specific moves are discussed in the book. I had trouble following the game in any kind of technical capacity, but I followed the game emotionally as Kawabata lays it out. I’m not sure if I would have enjoyed the book as much if I had no understanding of the game. I think I would have.

Which is to say I loved the book. The writing style is sparse and the chapters are short. Much of the book is about the physical ailments of the competitors, especially the Master who must take a months-long recess in the middle because of a heart condition and eventually dies one year after the game. It’s also about the various rules and recesses they have on top of the actual rules of the game. Because the game takes many months and is so physically intense for the players they set up procedures for breaking and returning, all of which is a kind of meta-game on top on the purity of placing pieces on the board. This is actually part metaphor for the new players of go. For the Master is it almost absurdity and the thought of strategizing the meta-game is offensive.

The game is described as a work of art and the players as artists. The book is rich with simple language but it also does not profess to higher meaning that it does not directly address. At one point, when the Master’s opponent Otake wants to forfeit because he does not want to challenge the Master as he dies, Kawabata (as Uragami in the book) details his opinions of what the game means in hopes of convincing Otake to continue. These opinions are rife with explanations of larger cultural implications of this particular game.

There is something beautiful and deeply engaging about the book that I don’t fully understand how Kawabata achieved. Something about the simple straight-forward writing, the selection of details, the way you know at the beginning that the Master loses but still are gripped by the unfolding. I want to write like that.