Friday, May 12, 2006

Two Narrative Books about Go

The Master of Go, by Yasunari Kawabata.

This book tells the true story, more or less, about the final game of the reputed "Master of Go" and his challenger, 7 dan Otake. The game took place over eight months in 1938, and the author is a reporter who covered the match, as well as a Go player in his own right. The book uses a classic Japanese story form, starting at the end and then moving back and eventually returning to the starting point.

This is a nice little book that gives the feel of not only the game and its tense play and cultural significance, but also a bit about the family life of the players and the clashing worlds between the old style of Go player and the new one.

One illustration of this clash is described in the introduction of the "sealed play". In the old days, a player would simply make a play when he needed to. If a scheduled break occurred, the players would simply break and return to the game later.

This allowed unscrupulous players to time their moves so that the break would occur when it was their turn to play, allowing them to consider the board during the break without having to use up time on their time clock. In order to forestall this type of activity, the sealed play was introduced. The last play before a break is sealed in an envelope and only placed on the board at the beginning of the next session, thus preventing this type of dishonorable manipulation.

The Master had never played with this rule. The book represents it as one of many needless inelegances that the Master feels as having undermined the spirit of the game. So it seems, almost, as if this game is fated to be his last not only because he is getting old and soon going to die, but because his world has already faded.

And still, the Japanese players have much more in common with each other than they have with the rest of the world. The reporter meets an American enthusiast on a train who plays some games with him. He reports:

He had the forms down well enough, but he had a way of playing thoughtlessly, without really putting himself into the game. Losing did not seem to bother him in the least. He went happily through game after game, as if to say that it was silly to take a mere game seriously ... One always found a competitive urge in a Japanese, however inept he might be at the game. One never encountered a stance as uncertain as this. The spirit of Go was missing.

In contrast to this attitude of Go being a silly game, the master almost resigns when his opponent makes a move that seems almost insulting:

The Master had put the match together as a work of art. It was as if the work, likened to a painting, were smeared black at the moment of highest tension ... Everything is lost when suddenly a false note is struck, or one party in a duet suddenly launches forth on an eccentric flight of his own.

It is quite nice, but somewhat slight. It is not expansive enough to be a masterpiece, but it is a diverting read. You also have to know the basic rules of Go to understand the game play.

The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa.

This book of fiction is also based in the 1930's. However, here the game of Go is used entirely as an allegorical device around a more expansive narrative, a backdrop to the Japanese invasion of China.

A young Manchurian girl struggles through her daily life in a small village, including her self-image, friendships, boys and sex, her passions, and her family. Meanwhile, she passes her free time playing Go against a mysterious stranger. This stranger is a Japanese soldier/spy, who is undergoing his own trials and transformations.

This book is lovely and powerful. The armies on both sides are brutal, and the war take its toll on both human lives and human spirit. The book manages to capture both the intimate and personal strivings of the individual as well as the grand struggle of the nations.

Very beautiful, and recommended, although of less interest from a gamer's perspective. You don't need to know anything about the game to enjoy the novel.


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