A Bell With a Distant Ring

A Bell With a Distant Ring

There is much to learn from Yasunari Kawabata’s final novel, even as—especially as—it gives rise to more questions than answers.


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:

“Mother,” Kuno began, then paused, unable to go on. “Ineko will start crying before she finishes ringing the bell. I’m sure she will. Of course she will.”

“Why Mr. Kuno, didn’t you just say it’s therapeutic? Maybe each time she strikes the bell the ringing draws out a bit of whatever it is that’s clouding her mind, the smudges in her head, and then the stuff just disappears into the sky.”

Of course, we have no way of knowing what Ineko is actually thinking or feeling as she rings the bell, even as her emotions filter through its tolling. All we as readers have is the sound of the bell (“dry rather than hard, with a gravely vibration at the tail”) and the interpretations of Ineko’s feelings that her mother and Kuno have offered us.

No stranger to the themes of love, desire, fate, memory, and the inaccessibility of the self and others, Yasunari Kawabata was a leader of the 20th-century literary-modernist movement in Japan. In 1924, he and several other writers founded a journal, Bungei Jidai (The Artistic Age), dedicated to the movement. Only a few of Kawabata’s works were translated into English during his lifetime—and those that were likely came as a result of his winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968. He concluded his Nobel lecture, titled “Japan, the Beautiful and Myself,” by saying: “My own works have been described as works of emptiness, but it is not to be taken for the nihilism of the West. The spiritual foundation would seem to be quite different.” The emptiness that Kawabata sought was “a universe of the spirit in which everything communicates freely with everything, transcending bounds, limitless…. Truth is in ‘the discarding of words,’ it lies ‘outside words.’ ”

Earlier in his Nobel lecture, in reference to a friend who had killed himself in 1927, Kawabata said, “I neither admire nor am in sympathy with suicide.” Kawabata took his own life on April 16, 1972, at the age of 72. No note was ever found.

What we have of Dandelions, which New Directions published in English in December 2017, translated by Michael Emmerich, has been said to be unfinished. Yet in a manner parallel to and consistent with the Western tendency to conclude that a life ended by suicide was unfulfilled, it may be too easy to apply that term to Dandelions. In his work, Kawabata aspired to reach a profound understanding of truth that transcended ordinary language, and it is within this legacy that we can read his final novel. We have much to learn from Kawabata’s last text, even as—especially as—it gives rise to more questions than answers.

Early in Dandelions, Kuno thinks he sees a white rat, but Ineko’s mother is skeptical. “Doesn’t that seem odd?” she asks him. “There’s no such thing as a white rat.” Later, they see a boy, his coloring reminiscent of the golden yellow of the dandelions in Ikuta. “Was that a human boy?” the mother asks. “Could there be fairies in this town?” But Kuno replies: “Don’t be absurd. He had on an ordinary elementary school uniform, shoes and all. He looked perfectly normal.”

These small instances—there is another, later on, when Kuno spots a white dandelion that Ineko’s mother cannot see—seem both innocuous and out of place, though Dandelions moves so mysteriously that it’s almost pointless to analyze it for plot. Rather, this string of quiet impressions accumulates, making us wonder which of the characters is seeing something that isn’t there and testing their reliability as narrators—and as seeing subjects within the confusing world of Kawabata’s text. Cumulatively, these moments engender a feeling of madness, one that seems to be reverberating from the clinic on the hill, where we might have thought it would be contained. And, of course, at the center of this narrative there is Ineko, who cannot see what is supposed to be present: a lover, his face, his chest.

Ineko’s somagnosia means that sometimes, suddenly, as if with a seizure, she stops seeing Kuno. In the middle of lovemaking, she becomes unable to see his body, even though she can still feel the touch of his hands. What is left is a gap in perception, an unfulfillment. “That’s the sort of sickness somagnosia seems to be, right?” Kuno asks the mother. “An effort not to see a part of yourself, of a loved one, of life. A blindness that stems from some deep wound.” It is fitting that Ineko’s illness mirrors her very presence in the novel, which is that of an absence felt across distance—as in the ringing of the bell across the town.

Although Ineko is ostensibly at the heart of the novel, Kawabata describes her and her illness only in the meandering, elliptical conversations between her mother and Kuno after they’ve left the clinic. Dialogue tags are often omitted, meaning that in the midst of long exchanges, it’s easy to lose track of who is speaking, while long pauses—silences in the conversation—are rendered in the text as series of ellipses. These conversations begin to assume the shape of a philosophical dialogue, with circuitous routes of logic that double back on themselves, as the two discuss language, fate, and their theories about the origin of Ineko’s condition.

It is in these present absences—or, perhaps, the places where communication isn’t necessarily about speech—that the novel’s deepest meaning is located. These absences are doubly resonant, as they underscore Ineko’s distance from her own narrative, both as an object of desire and as a madwoman. Because Ineko’s body-blindness occurs at the moment of lovemaking—at the fulfilling of physical desire—Kuno and her mother can talk about it only in halting, staggered, oblique conversations, where much is expressed in how they avert their speech from what they actually wish to discuss.

“Mr. Kuno,” the mother said. “Ineko stops seeing things that are right there in front of her. We’re not talking about a silly little dream.”

“No, because in the real world you can reach out and touch a thing to confirm its existence, even if you can’t see it.”

“And doesn’t that make it even scarier?” Ineko’s mother caught her breath; her face grew somewhat red. “Mr. Kuno, it’s awkward for me to talk about things like this, but supposing you were lying with Ineko, and she could touch you with her hands but not see you. Don’t you think that would be scary—terrifying enough to drive a person mad?”


“How did you love Ineko, Mr. Kuno?”

“How did I love her?” Mr. Kuno mumbled, blushing in spite of himself. “How did I love her… the truth is, there’s no good way to answer that question.”

The book builds toward a climactic final scene torrential with emotion. It is a memory of Kuno’s, of a time when Ineko lost her sight of his body, from his mouth down. In that moment, his torso disappears entirely; in its place, Ineko sees a pale pink rainbow, a mirage of sorts, that delights her—a very different experience from the terror that she had previously felt when Kuno’s body vanished.

This scene appears on the final pages of Dandelions. We never learn Ineko’s fate; we hardly know how she feels about her somagnosia, or about the conflict between her mother and the man she loves. And perhaps we aren’t meant to know these things so explicitly: We must return again and again to the text to see if they will rise from between the lines, as heat shimmers up from sun-warmed pavement. We are offered, as a clue, this startling, expressive last sentence, which provides us with the kind of intimate physicality that the novel has avoided until this point, in the moment when Kuno presses his hands over Ineko’s unseeing eyes:

She couldn’t see Kuno either way, but when her eyes closed of their own accord she felt as if she could still see him, and when he shut her eyes for her after she had stopped seeing him, then she felt that she really couldn’t see him.

There is an early scene in Snow Country, perhaps Kawabata’s best-known novel, published in 1937, where the protagonist Shimamura, a city man traveling to the hot springs of snow country to luxuriate in the company of its geishas, is sitting on a train, watching the landscape pass. As he stares out the window, he notices the face of a young woman, sitting diagonally from him in the lighted car, reflected over the landscape: “In the depths of the mirror the evening landscape moved by, the mirror and the reflected figures like motion pictures superimposed one on the other. The figures and the background were unrelated, and yet the figures, transparent and intangible, and the background, dim in the gathering darkness, melted together into a sort of symbolic world not of this world. Particularly when a light out in the mountains shone in the center of the girl’s face, Shimamura felt his chest rise at the inexpressible beauty of it.” This image—of the beautiful girl’s face, superimposed over the landscape, with a light shining in it—haunts the rest of the novel.

In the same way, Ineko—though distanced and often not offered speech of her own, except in memories and in the ringing of the temple bell—is superimposed across the text of Dandelions. She appears as a constructed, symbolic figure, stretching across space and time. This portrayal is a kind of liberation: Ineko’s character offers a perceptual opening for the reader, a way for us to imagine her and her fate beyond the slight contours that the novel provides. It is imagining her experience—her life, her desires, her longing, her psychology—that provides a way up and out of the taut, circular conversations that Kuno and Ineko’s mother engage in. If we read Dandelions not as an unfinished masterpiece but as a work in dialogue with the themes of love, desire, and the language beyond language, it feels not broken off but rather open to possibility, trembling with the potential for interpretation. Rather than longing for what lies beyond the final page, we can turn our attention to what has already been presented, however mysteriously, and consider it from different perspectives, as one turns a faceted crystal under a light.

From the novel’s outset, communication is represented as something that extends far beyond the scope of language. We are asked to consider the long, echoing ring of a bell across town as a representation of human feeling. We are asked to consider the friendly sound of a voice rather than speech itself, to consider the shape of a brushstroke rather than the drawn character. We are asked to consider not the words the characters speak but how they speak them, and even, in the ellipses of the text, the way they say what is not spoken. Reading Dandelions, we begin to understand that words are not always enough. There are places, deep within the human heart, where language cannot reach.

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