Dandelions, Yasunari Kawabata’s final novel, opens with the long, low gonging of a temple bell at a home for the mentally ill in the quiet, beautiful town of Ikuta, where the novel’s titular flowers line the banks of the river:
As they walked down the path on the riverbank after leaving their lunatic in the clinic on the hill, they would hear behind them the long, low gonging of the temple bell. It was as if the one they had left behind were calling to them, saying goodbye. As if the bell were being struck to mark their parting. Forlorn but not unsettled, its ringing passed over the town and headed out to sea.
The tolling of the bell, in these opening paragraphs, sets the tone for the book’s discursive, philosophical explorations. From this setup, Kawabata moves comfortably into the reality of the book, which is the story of Kizaki Ineko, a patient at the asylum who suffers from “somagnosia,” or fits in which the sufferer is unable to see the bodies of others; Kuno, her lover; and Ineko’s mother. “If you hear the bell as you go,” the doctor at the clinic tells Kuno and the mother, “assume it’s her ringing it.”
The bell’s purpose—or, rather, the purpose of its sound—emerges in the conversation between Ineko’s mother, Kuno, and the doctor. Although most temple bells are struck only twice a day, the doctor explains, the patients enjoyed ringing this one so much, and found it so therapeutic, that the clinic asked the town if they could ring it five times a day. As a result, the bell is almost constantly sounding across the town, if not as first strike then as an echo. “The ringing is definitely telling us something, that’s for sure,” the doctor says. “You hear something coming from deep within them, perhaps—deep in their hearts.” He continues: “Our patients are isolated from the world, as you know. But when they strike the bell, the sound can be heard beyond the clinic, all through town. Whether or not they realize it, our patients are addressing themselves to the outside world—or to put it in slightly grandiose terms, by ringing that bell, they’re reminding the world that they’re here, that they exist.”
Thus, in the first few pages of the book, Kawabata has provided a lens for the novel, establishing one of its core themes: the varieties, and failures, of communication. The sound of the temple bell recurs throughout the book; when the bell rings, its tone prompts Kuno and Ineko’s mother to consider the ringer’s mental state, making that person present in their own minds even if he or she is not physically there. And sure enough, Ineko rings the bell as her mother and her lover are leaving the asylum. From a distance, they discuss what they hear: