The Japanese original title is Meijin (名人), which means brilliant person, a term used for a certain famous Go tournament.
The Master of Go is a historical novel about a Go match, which was played in 1938 over a time of more than six months. It is the chronicle of the last game of a grand Master and his story of decline. A perfect written elegy. Shortly after the end of the game on December, 4th of 1938 the Master died.
Kawabata first worked as a news reporter for the Osaka and Tokyo Nichinichi Shinbun. He wrote about this Go match, which was published as a serial news report there. Later, during the time from 1938 to 1951 he worked on the topic further on. He made it into a novel and intertwined it with some fictitious elements. He changed some of the characteristics of the Master and added some personal stories. The reporter in the novel, Mr. Uragami, is Kawabata himself.
You do not have to know the rules of Go to read the novel. Kawabata describes them naturally during the story for every reader. And even as a beginner you will grasp the tension of the game. If you can play Go you probably have fun in understanding the deeper meaning of the whole game process. Furthermore the book (Vintage International) provides charts of the Go board showing processed moves of the game.
The “invincible” Master at the age of 67, plays against a young and nervous man named Otake of the 7th Rank. During the play the Master suffers a serious illness and has to spend some time in hospital. You learn about the strong discipline and the wisdom of the Master, yet he makes a terrible mistake. The young player has hardly no manners, sometimes behaves childish and extremely nervous. One thinks of Japanese tradition against modernism and the story was also interpreted as the loss of Japanese aristocratic values.
On the one hand Kawabata presents an accurate account of every single move of both players: each counting of points, how many time is left for each player, how long did it take each of the player to make the next move on the board. Details of the surroundings of the game, drinking tea, going to the rest-room, moving from the board, staying at the board is described precisely.
One the other hand the novel is a psychologically well-observed character study of both opponents. Everything behind the scenes and their personal story of the players is told lively with many behind the scenes informations and this makes the novel a story full of tension and exciting to read.
I think it is a must read of modern Japanese fiction, though one is maybe not able to understand it in its full aspects. I recommend it as a specific Japanese novel.
川端 康成 : 名人. 1951. Kawabata Yasunari: The Master of Go. 1972 (English translation by Edward G. Seidensticker).