by Natsume Soseki
Review by A.I. White
Kokoro opens in an unassuming manner. The nameless narrator, pen in hand, recollects the first moment he met Sensei on a summer holiday in Kamakura, a popular getaway. His traveling companion, a fellow student, had returned home to attend to a sick mother, and after a swim on the beach the narrator notices a Westerner who stands out because he was not in modest Western swimwear but in his drawers like the locals; this man, Sensei, disrobes.
It’s a simple opening done in a consistently plain prose that avoids flourishes, characteristic of Japanese translations into English. On a first reading the scene may only appear notable because the reader, informed by the jacket copy, knows that the relationship between the narrator and Sensei is one of the novel’s major elements; those acquainted with the Meiji period–in which this novel takes place and during which Japan became Westernized at a dramatic rate–would also duly note the foreigner’s presence. Perhaps readers unfamiliar with Natsume Soseki’s plain writing and who have a taste for a more elaborate style would start to doubt whether this novel would be able to pack any emotional wallop. Could this really be the novel Japanese readers chose as their favorite in a recent poll?
It is. Originally published in 1914 and recently reissued by Peter Owen Publishers, Kokoro is a novel that quietly lures you in, creates and develops complexities from scene to scene until you are wholly engaged, and then rewards your expectations with answers and more questions. Soseki accomplishes this through a pattern of echoes of repetitions that illuminate for the reader humanity’s inherent moral frailty and how it shapes our existence. And it all starts in the first paragraph.
The book, arranged in three parts, is essentially two testaments: the first one is written by the narrator as a response to a testament Sensei had sent him an unspecified number of years earlier. In it he recounts the two’s burgeoning friendship, from the beach to Tokyo, where they both live. The reason for his initial attraction to the older man is unclear, and we are tempted to consider the possibility of a sexual element, but the narrator appears satisfied with settling for a mentor-student relationship.
This isn’t the only time the narrator fails to look further. Repeatedly he emphasizes his youthful naivete to show how it allows him to become somewhat close to Sensei, yet Sensei is a depressed, withdrawn individual. He socializes with friends on special occasions, is well-educated but by choice unemployed, and is guarded against everyone he knows, including his wife, Shizu. He is a man “who despise[s] himself” and so “refuse[s] to accept openheartedly the intimacy of others.”
The narrator is oblivious to the sort of loaded remarks that should provoke questions, or at least persistent internal speculation. When Sensi remarks about a man with kidney disease “I would take his place if I could,” the narrator manages to miss this morbid, alarming statement. Another time Sensei seeks out the narrator after a fight with his wife. In a mood so dour that even the narrator notices it, Sensei discusses the fight in the vaguest manner imaginable, then says that he regrets leaving the house in anger and moves to return home “for his wife’s sake.” These words comfort the student, who imagines that Sensei and Shizu have a perfect, loving relationship.
An enduring sense of malaise and morbidity is present from the book’s first paragraph and continues to build, pointedly affecting parents or those in authority. Shizu’s mother died from a kidney disease; both of Sensei’s parents died when he was young. Emperor Meiji dies at a seminal point prompting General Nogi, a widely admired military figure, to commit junshi (following one’s lord into death). The most suggestive figure is Sensei himself, “who had never in his life been seriously ill,” because he imposes on himself the role of the living dead, a decision mysteriously linked to a grave that he visits every month. In Japan’s period of radically changing ideas and seeming abandonment of the old ways, there is no single person or institution that remains inviolable.
When the imperial family was restored, a new era was ushered in by moving the capital from Edo to Tokyo, and the gap between these two eras is reflected in Sensei and the narrator’s relationship. Tokyo is both where Sensei’s idea of himself radically alters and where the narrator becomes dismissive of traditional ideas on education and relationships, adopting a worldly tone so attractive to youth. In the testament he sends the narrator, Sensei refers to the marked differences in their perspective caused by the generation gap.
It is why General Nogi’s suicide provokes a more pronounced response from Sensei than the narrator. Nogi, a figure who represented the new Japan flush from its overseas victories, committed an act redolent of an older era. It is a changing point for Sensei; a man once firmly rooted in higher ideals, he discovers that he is not so incompatible with the “modern age, so full of freedom, independence, and our own egotistical selves.” (30)
“My Parents and I,” the novel’s slimmest section, acts as a limbo before the final revelations of Sensei’s testament. The narrator’s father is now in a steady decline and the narrator's own future is uncertain. He has graduated but does not know what he wishes to do. Neither he nor his brother ventures to ask their father about the will, although both are concerned over its contents. Emperor Meiji’s natural death and General Nogi’s suicide add to the uncertainty. Then follows Sensei’s testament, sent to the narrator by mail, which lays out his past and forces the reader to re-evaluate Sensei and his quiet wife and to deliberate on what becomes of the narrator in light of it.
Kokoro, Soseki’s last completed novel, is widely considered to be his best, the book in which the themes he had developed in previous works were fully realized. Yet whether Kokoro represents Soseki’s apex or not, experiencing it can only whet your thirst for more.
In Sensei’s testament Soseki vividly describes the process of baring oneself: "Now I myself am about to cut open my heart, and drench your face with my blood. And I shall be satisfied if, when my heart stops beating, a new life lodges itself in your breast." (129) By the end of Kokoro, neither the narrator nor the reader can doubt that this is precisely what has happened. Soseki executes his exploration of humanity’s intricate psychological condition with an intensity and sophistication that is hard to ignore. He is an author who deserves to be read widely outside a Japan that has recognized him as one of its best.