Palm-of-the-Hand Stories by Yasunari Kawabata
translated by Lane Dunlop and J. Martin Holman
2001, North Point Press
The short stories collected in this collected were the works Kawabata (best known for his novels Beauty and Sadness, The Snow Country, and others) considered to be his best work. He worked on these stories throughout his life, and the first stories in the collection are from the early 1920s, while the latest story in the collection is from 1972.
As the title suggests, Palm-of-the-Hand stories are brief, often only a page to two pages long. Unlike many examples of "sudden fiction," Palm-of-the-Hand stories don't rely on plot, incident, or even character. Instead, these are dreamlike, fragmentary, yet as whole as a polished stone. Often there is a woman at the center of a story, and often the woman is somehow damaged, as in "There is a God." The nameless narrator observes a poultryman bathing his fragile, sickly wife in a mountainside bath. The sharply observed details--the woman draws in her arms and legs "like an intelligent cat," and the ripples the woman makes lap gently at another bather's chin--have a poetic intensity.
Palm-of-the-Hand stories are difficult to describe: the stories are dreamlike--or they describe dreams that send ripples out to the reader. There are husbands and wives--besotted or estranged. There are children and parents, or, frequently, men who watch women--with longing or desire or fear or shame. There is little dialogue, little of plot. The stories are often wrapped in the silence of solitude. They are often funny in a wry, haiku-moment-observed way. In "The Rainy Station" the narrator observes in the first sentence of the story: "Wives, wives, wives, wives--oh, women, how many of you, in this world, are called by the name of wife?" In this single sentence Kawabata calls up a sense of wonder and mystery and the strangeness of what we think of as ordinary life, the mystery and strangeness of wives and husbands.
The final story in the collection is a "palm-sized" reduction of Kawabata's novel Snow Country. This in itself seems a curious act for a writer--taking his own completed novel, and distilling it to a story of just a few pages.
Palm-of-the-Hand Stories is a collection to be read all at once, or taken slowly and savored. I find myself reading the stories, setting them aside for long periods of time, then being drawn to them again, as if to a half-remembered dream. This collection is unlike any other collection of stories I've read, and if you like dreamlike, imagist stories you will probably love this collection.