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Yasunari Kawabata’s ‘Palm-of-the-Hand Stories’ are taut tales of the human heart

by William Bradbury

“Palm-of-the-Hand Stories” is a collection of 70 very brief stories by Nobel Prize-winner Yasunari Kawabata that were written between the early 1920s and 1970s. It contains poetic depictions of emotions, a focus on feelings rather than understanding. These stories present the chaos of the human heart, the kind often hidden in daily life but unleashed in private moments.

Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, by Yasunari Kawabata, Translated by Lane Dunlop and J. Martin Holman.
259 pages
Farrar Straus & Giroux, Fiction.

Many of these stories depict epiphanies, transformations and revelations. In “The Sparrow’s Matchmaking,” a man decides on his future wife through mystical communion with a sparrow. Such fantastical stories are placed beside quotidian tales, where magic is generated by the power of human imagination. In “The Wife’s Search,” a woman deals with what Kawabata describes as “the flower of delusion that blossoms in the fertile soil of human boredom.” When musing on housewives waiting for their husbands at the station, he compares the ticket turnstile to “the gate of an enormous prison society. The men, convicts serving a life sentence.”

Reading Kawabata’s stories is a reminder that vividly drawn small moments can be just as dramatic as grand events. The brevity and myriad of themes in “Palm-of-the-Hand Stories” are oddly suited to our current age, where communicating as much as we can in the shortest space of time and with the least number of words has become the norm.

Read archived reviews of Japanese classics at jtimes.jp/essential.