Kokoro--Natsume Soseki

First, a warning to those who would pick up the elegant, poetic, and powerful new translation of this most important novel of one of Japan's finest novelists: read the preface last, except for perhaps the last page in which the translator explains the meaning of kokoro and how she chose to translate it.  The rest of the preface is stuffed full of major spoilers.  But this was the only flaw I could find with the novel and wiht the translation. The plot isn't precisely a page-tuner, but the reader is engaged every step of the way, from the narrator's encounter with the otherwise nameless Sensei to the very end.

In a nutshell, a young man leaves his family to go to Tokyo for school. While there he encounters and "falls in love with" an intriguing, mysterious man whom he comes to call Sensei. Falls in love with should not be read to imply a homosexual affair, but as the translator rightly notes, a kind of erotic intellectualism.  There is no sense of passion here, but a sense of complete adoration, complete enchantment. The young man is called back home because his father, who has some mysterious illness, has taken a turn for the worse.  While there, he is disappointed that Sensei does not contact him more.  As his father steadily worsens, he receives a note from Sensei asking him to return to Tokyou.  Obviously, under the circumsances, he cannot.  Somewhat later he receives from Sensei another communication that fills that last half of the book.

The book seems to be about many things.  Some of them will probably be more opaque to Western readers than others.  For example, the action of our present story runs largely parallel to the death of the last Meiji Emperor and the suicide of his most important general.  Japan is changing, and chaning in ways that no one can know are better or worse.  This is further exemplified by the difficulty Sensei has in abandoning the traditional Japanese garb and taking up awkward western clothing.  He does it readinly because everyone is, and yet there is a clinging to the traditional Japan.

Further, the book is about honor and about the mistakes we make when young or when old.  It is about coming to terms with past actions and setting them in context.  It is also a sort of bildungsroman, in two parallel tales--the young man who takes the Sensei on as confidant, and the Sensei himself coming to terms with his manhood without the help or advise of anyone he can trust.

I should say that for a Japanese novel, there are probably fewer stumbling blocks for the western reader than you are likely to encounter in any other novelist.  The story is, to its very heart and core, Japanese.  There is no way that the action, particularly of the third part of the book would take place in exactly that way anywhere outside of Japan. To say more than it concerns a rivalry over a young woman would be to expose too much of the heart of what makes this so wonderful and interesting a book.

(You know, writing reviews without saying things about the plot and elements of the story that entranced is darn difficult.)

Let me end by saying at last, what kokoro means. Kokoro is the Japanese word for heart--not as in the physical organ, but rather as in the core of being.  It means, according to the translator, some combination of what we would call heart and soul and mind.  And indeed, as one reads, one can see the heart of a former Japan laid bare in all of its glory and infamy.

Highly recommended--*****


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