2 January 2012

Book Review: Kokoro by Natsume Soseki

I wanted to branch out some of my reading and get into some Japanese literature. So I asked around for where would be a good place to start. I got 2 suggestion: Kokoro and The Tale of Genji. The latter was quite long and seemed a bit of an investment for a first foray, so I opted for Kokoro. Upon reading the description about the book, I was expecting something that would be broadly similar in themes and style to one of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex novels. What I found was very different, but still extremely good.

The first thing to strike the reader is that the book is all told in the first person, although there are two different viewpoints. The second thing is that no one is actually given a proper name throughout the entire book. Indeed, there is a paucity of characters which gives the book it’s distinctly “sparse” feel. The first narrator, through whose eyes we see the first half of the novel, is a young man, studying at college. He spies an older gentleman and instantly decides to follow him. This older gentleman is referred to as Sensei, though that is not his real name.

The author becomes, as it were, disciple to this reluctant rabbinic figure and they form something of a friendship. Here, it is worth saying something about the translation. My Japanese is appalling; I can say about a dozen words and even then my pronunciation leaves a lot to be desired. Throughout the first part of the book, I couldn’t escape the feeling that the translation had left the book a little staccato. The sentences were often short, simple and did not feel to have much flow to them. However, in hindsight, I think this may have been excellent writing from Soseki as the second half (which is narrated by Sensei) is much more fluent. Therefore, I think the punctuated writing pattern of the first half reflects the relative immaturity of the first narrator.

The central theme of the book is one of self-loathing. In particular, in all of the first narrator’s discussions with Sensei, there is a nagging sense of something in Sensei’s past which not even his wife knows about. This is brought out early in the novel when it is revealed that Sensei regularly visits a certain grave, though the identity of the grave’s occupant is not revealed until much later on, though I shan’t spoil it.

The change in narration comes about when the first narrator constantly questions Sensei as to why he is the way he is: aloof and withdrawn from the world, with a distrust for everyone in it, including his own wife. Throughout the first part of the novel, Sensei avoids these questions, but decides to write a letter to his disciple laying out much of his personal history in an effort to ensure that at least somebody knows what his reasons are. It is this letter that forms nearly half the book.

There is much more that I could write about this, but I shall refrain for fear of spoiling it for you. Needless to say, I would really recommend this to you. In fact, I wish I had read this when I was in my early 20s, around the same age as the first narrator. If I could describe it as a piece of scenery, it would be of a handful of people on an open moor, separated by wide open spaces, calling out to one another, but always just on the boundary of being out of earshot. It has a bleakness to it, but not in the fatalistic sense of Hardy. The bleakness is in the outlook on life that Sensei possesses, based on his own past and the things he blames himself for, though it is slightly open-ended as to how much of what he has piled on his own shoulders is his own fault.

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