The Master of Go

Yasunari Kawabata

translated from the Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker
Vintage 1996 [1951]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2014
Based on Kawabata's own reporting at the time, The Master of Go is a loosely fictionalised account of a 1938 Go game between an incumbent Master and a younger challenger. It conveys a feel for the ruptures of broader cultural change as well as the intensity of the individual conflict. It is a character study, of the Master Shusai first and foremost but of his challenger Otake as well, but it also explores the complexity of Go's embedding in traditional Japanese society.

The game drags on for more than five months due to the Master's illness, but Kawabata maintains a feeling of progression even though his narration shifts backwards and forwards in time. This 1972 translation is of a later, reworked version, but the original publication in 1951 was as a serial novel. This is reflected in short chapters which make for easy reading, but they have been worked into a coherent whole and The Master of Go is an effective novel. And Kawabata's prose may be simple and spare, but his characterisations and ideas are subtle and there's more here than meets the eye at first.

The Master of Go is an engaging account, especially for anyone who has ever played Go. Key parts of the game are described, along with enough game position diagrams for even a "really only knows the rules" player like myself to follow the moves. While this is not necessary for appreciation of the story, it is not incidental to it either, but adds an extra layer to our understanding of the encounter.

November 2014

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%T The Master of Go
%A Kawabata, Yasunari
%M Japanese
%F Seidensticker, Edward G.
%I Vintage
%D 1996 [1951]
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9780679761068
%P 188pp