The Lake by Yasunari Kawabata

Gimpei barely suppressed the urge to put his arm round the girl’s legs. But before he could do anything rash, the sudden realization that, every evening, she would walk here with her dog beneath the shade of the gingko tree and that he could watch her from a hiding place on top of the bank came to him like a ray of hope. It was like lying naked in the new grass, so cool and fresh was his sense of relief. Yes, he would watch her from the top of the bank, and she would come up the slope toward him forever… His happiness knew no bounds. (p. 86)

The Lake by Yasunari Kawabata begins with a fugitive entering a bath. He is Gimpei, a self-conscious old man with ugly feet who was suspended from teaching for seducing his teenage student. Gimpei recently took a bag dropped by a woman containing two hundred thousand yen and ran away from home, fearing the police will be after him.

Fragmented scenes and memories flashed in his head while he was bathed by the establishment’s pretty attendant. The voice and the body of the young girl stirred up his memory, haunted as he was by several ghosts from his past. So we begin to learn of the death of his father in the lake near his childhood home, the child he had with a prostitute who he abandons in the streets, and the faces of the young women in his life.

Throughout the novel, it is interesting to note that Gimpei’s voyeuristic episodes, sexual interactions, and perverse fantasies are narrated beautifully and with nostalgia as if they were the most natural thing in the world.

Meanwhile, a parallel narrative focuses on the life of Miyako, the young woman who lost her money. She gave her body to a decrepit old man in exchange for financial security. On one hand, the money she worked hard for and lost makes “the very thought of saving a bitter memory.” On the other hand, “she had felt a momentary thrill when she lost the money – a thrill of pleasure”:

It was as if some vague sensation, smoldering within her while she was being followed by the man had suddenly caught fire – almost as though her youth, lost in old Arita’s shadow, had suddenly been restored to life and had taken its revenge. If this were true, Miyako, at that precise moment, received compensation for all the shame she had endured through the long days and months it had taken to accumulate the two hundred thousand yen. And so the money was probably lost not in vain. (p. 50)

The Lake is essentially a disturbing yet poetically rendered short novel about the fantasies of a dirty old man and the twisted lives of those around him, all symbolized by the stagnant lake that fails to move forward. ■



  1. Hi, Gabriel. Thanks for dropping by. I think I liked Kabawata’s The Lake enough to have written something about it here without explicitly stating anything negative about it. I liked the way Kawabata arranged the parts of the narrative and the assemblage of disturbing characters that seems to concentrate and magnify the contradictions enmeshing Japanese society. Happy New Year! :)

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