Haiku aren’t prose, though, and they’re shorter even than most flash pieces; they didn’t really provide the model in prose I was looking for. But, in the end, my interest in Japanese literature led me to the person I feel is the supreme practitioner of understated, highly-suggestible language: Yasunari Kawabata, also a master of the kind of reflective double vision seen in traditional haiku.
The first thing I read by him was a book called The House of Sleeping Beauties. In this prose writer, I immediately encountered everything I liked about the Japanese poetry—a quality of simple but profound suggestiveness. I grabbed another novel—Snow Country—and though it wasn’t longer than 150 pages, there was just something there. And in his book of short works, The Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, I found an ideal model for one kind of work I wanted to do.
One common form of haiku double vision layers something from the past underneath something from the present. One of my favorite Kawabata stories, “The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket,” innovates on this idea: something in the present generates a vision of the future.
It begins with a man—we don’t know much about him—who’s walking one evening for his nightly constitutional. He comes upon a group of children, who are having some kind of spring festival. They’ve made paper lanterns—gorgeous, hand-made things cut so that they throw patterns of light. Some of them have cut their names, so the lanterns project Japanese characters into the night.
He watches the children, as they’re totally engaged catching insects in the light of the lanterns. Here, one needs to make a slight departure and say that in Japan, it’s common to go out and catch a cricket, praying mantis, or some other musical insect and put him in a little cage. It’s in the spirit of what children do with fireflies in the United States—suddenly, in the summer, the world warms up these beautiful insects make lightning in the darkness, so you go out with a mason jar and catch them, and watch them light until your parents say, now you’ve got to let them go. In this story, a boy catches what he thinks is a grasshopper—a fine prize, which all the other children covet. When he gives it away to the girl he most admires—and she points out the bug is actually a bell cricket, an even rarer, more highly sought-after insect.
There’s a beautiful scene just after this exchange, where the two stand facing each other and—without their knowing it—lights from their lanterns, red and green, fall across their chests. The boy has cut his name into his lantern, and the girl’s cut hers—of course, you must envision that amazing brevity of a Japanese character, casting light in its shape—and for just a moment, the boy’s name beams bright on the girl’s chest, and hers glows red on his waist. They have no idea this is happening, and that’s the heartbreaking thing—it’s as though they have a connection they will never quite appreciate until it’s too late.