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I Wish I Read More Short Short Stories

16 November 2012 2,802 views One Comment

by Benjamin Pham

In my mild, short-lived despair over the Swedish Academy’s passing over Japanese author Haruki Murakami for the Nobel Prize for Literature, I searched for successful Japanese winners of the prize. A quick Google search turned up two names. I’d already heard of Kenzaburo Oe, but Yasunari Kawabata was a name that I hadn’t heard before.

Yasunari Kawabata

A quick catalog search for “Yasunari Kawabata” indicated that his books were on Green Library’s third floor.  I did some cursory research about his novels before I went to the library. The Swedish Academy, in particular, recommended The Old Capital and two of his shorter novels, The Snow Kingdom and A Thousand Cranes. My eyes flitted among several of his books: which to read? The Old Capital looked good, but so did The Master of Go, which Kawabata liked the most out of all his novels.

I was reaching for The Old Capital when a gray, thin, faded volume caught my eye.  “Palm-of-the-Hand Stories” was printed on the spine. Intrigued, I was delightfully surprised when I opened up the book. Not only was this book decidedly not at all like any long fiction, it was not a collection of short stories, either. Palm-of-the-Hand Stories is a compilation of short fictional vignette-stories that Kawabata wrote over the course of his career. Each story is no longer than five or six pages; most stories span two to three. The collection itself spans the vast majority of his career – the first story was written in 1923; the last, in 1972. According to the editorial note at the beginning of Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, Kawabata said that the essence of his art was expressed in these short short stories.

I confess that I’ve never been a particular fan of flash fiction – before I came to Stanford, I had enough time to read whatever I wanted to, and I never had any inclination to read flash fiction. Now that I’m here, though, flash fiction is some of the only pleasure reading I can do that fits into my schedule.  And I’m glad that I’m starting to get into short short stories – they have a unique power to them that isn’t found in novels, or even in short stories. They make no grand, sweeping claims about the human condition; they tell no epic tales. Instead, they take the ordinary and everyday and turn them into mirrors. Short short stories are the smallest of microcosms that magnify our experiences and our humanity.

Which isn’t to say that all short short stories are good. If they magnify the power of good writing, they also magnify the faults of bad writing. Kawabata himself said that some of his short short stories were contrived to a ridiculous degree. But he also said that his flash fiction was the single best way to trace his writing over the course of his career; this is, I think, what Kawabata meant when he said the essence to his art lay in his short short stories.

For instance, in “Lavatory Buddhahood,” written in 1929, Kawabata tells the story of two peasants who run competing lavatory stalls near a field of cherry blossoms.  Seeing demand for a lavatory stall near the blossoms, one peasant builds a rudimentary stall and charges three cents for someone to use it.  The stall becomes successful overnight. The other peasant, seeing his competitor’s success, builds a nicer, prettier stall and charges eight cents, only to have no one use it – it looks too nice. The man says not to worry; the next day, his wife mans the stall, taking in five full pots worth of coins. After the day is over, she returns home. While waiting for her husband, his dead body is brought home. The man who brought the body explains, “He died in Hachihei’s pay toilet, from lumbago, it seems.” Her husband had spent the entire day crouching in his competitor’s toilet and coughing whenever anyone else tried to use the stall. The story ends with comments from residents in the capital remarking on the man’s death: “The most stylish suicide ever in Japan,” “What a ruin for such a refined man,” “He was an unrivaled master.”

The entire story is told in three small pages. Kawabata crafts each sentence and paragraph so tightly that the turning point – the man’s death – is unexpected yet startlingly plausible, a natural progression from the tidy narrative that Kawabata lays out in the first two pages. That Kawabata seamlessly integrates the surprise into the stream of narrative is a testament not only to the requirements that the form places on the writer, but also to Kawabata’s mastery of the form.

And to have such a good story in only three pages – what more could a busy Stanford student ask of a story?

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