11 January 2012

Kokoro by Natsume Soseki

Thoughts and Reflections
I had very much looked forward to reading this book and was anxious for a taste of Japanese literature in the early 1900s. The book maintained many of those features that I have come to enjoy in Japanese literature, this balance between nature and the city, the descriptive writing, the ability of the characters to be silent.

I was very absorbed in the first half of the book, wondering where the story was going, how the characters lives entwined, and so on. However, at the halfway point, I felt the need to put the book aside and distance from it for a period of time (just a few days or a week). I no longer understood the actions of the protagonist and didn't want to watch him wander down his chosen path. Once I felt removed enough to resume reading, I again became absorbed in the lives of the characters.

On the one hand, I found the book profound, yet, on the other, superficial. I enjoyed the writing style, but aspects of the book escape me. The ending to me was abrupt. The protagonist reads the letter from Sensei, his mentor, and then the book ends. There is no discussion of what happens after the letter, what about the characters, how do they continue to live, how have their lives been changed. Though, undoubtedly, the author had his reasons for ending the book this way, I felt more was needed.

The author spent a considerable amount of time describing the protagonist with his family and with his dying father. However, this portion of the novel makes little sense to me. I see no purpose for it. The only potential reason that I can tell, is that in the eyes of the protagonist, the death of his mentor is more important or devastating than the death of his father. Perhaps because he had time to prepare for one, but not the other. Regardless, the pages describing his family life seems out of place; the plot is dropped.

The novel talks about how the decisions of youth affect adulthood and of pain and suffering in life. One character was unable to recover from the death of a friend, whose death he felt responsible for. Another character was unable to recover from the betrayal of a friend and loss of the one he loved. I was able to relate to the young Sensei when emotions prevented him from acting kindly towards his friend. However, the consequences of his actions devastated him and caused him grief until his dying day, consequences that one hopes never to realise in their lifetime. It is difficult to blame any one character for the events, as each character was acting as he or she saw fit.  No one could anticipate the end result. The title of the novel, Kokoro, evidently means "heart" in Japanese, a very appropriate title considering the plot.

The book sheds some light on the perception of women during this time period. Women were not considered highly and the book tossed out quite a few slights against the intellectual ability of women. The treatment of women was not altogether surprising and I found the slights somewhat comical.  I was relieved women are no longer considered to be intellectually deficient compared to men in many countries worldwide (though I realise this is not the case everywhere).

I enjoyed the novel and was easily able to become interested in the lives of the characters. I did not always understand the motives of the characters or the author's reasoning in his novel. I am also not entirely sure what to take away from this novel. I can't quote any wise words taken from the plot or themes. Nonetheless, the book is not easily forgotten.

The Author
Natsume Soseki was born in 1867. His birth evidently brought a degree of disgrace to his family, being born late in the life of his parents, long after their first five children. As a result, he was adopted to another family until he was 9 years old, at which point the couple divorced and he returned to his natural family. He became interested in literature during middle school in Tokyo. His family disapproved of his intention to become a writer, so when Soseki entered the Tokyo Imperial University to become an architect. Being encouraged in his writing by a friend, Soseki entered the English Department at the University in 1890, graduating in 1893. He did some graduate work and enrolled in Normal School to become a teacher. From 1895 he worked as a teacher, but also began publishing some of his works. He was married in 1896. In 1900, he was sent to study in Great Britain, being Japan's first English literature scholar. He studies in Great Britain for three years, a period of time which he evidently didn't enjoy. After his return to Japan, he became a professor of English literature at the Tokyo Imperial University. He's reputation as a writer became established through the publication of Bochan  in 1905 and Kusamakura in 1906. He died in 1916.

Things I Liked About This Novel
1. I liked the characters and found myself caught up in the story of their lives.
2. As is often the case with Japanese literature, I enjoyed the writing style.
3. I appreciated the discussion of emotions, youthful folly, and the consequences of actions.

No comments: