Am I over-interpreting your novel, when I say that it has at least a twofold interpretation? The way I see it, the plot unfolds itself, on the one hand, as a dark yet compelling exploration of the human kokoro – a word that can be translated as “the heart of things”, “heart” or “feeling”. At its core we have the friendship between the nameless narrator, a young student, and an elder misanthrope he calls Sensei (‘teacher’, ‘mentor’). Sensei is a depressed, somewhat morbid, man. He is well-educated but remains by choice unemployed. He is guarded against everyone he knows, including his wife, Shizu. Sensei is both dismissive of traditional ideas and a critic of the individualistic values of the West. As the novel slowly evolves, the student develops a strange fascination with Sensei and, at the end, painfully discovers the truth behind this old man’s seclusion.
On the other hand, though, the story, originally published in 1914, can be read as an allegory, as it depicts the student, his father and Sensei, respectively, as embodiments of the Japanese modernity (the son), the Japanese tradition (the father) and the Meiji‘s transitional period (the mentor). If I’m not mistaken here, your novel explores the transition from the Japanese Meiji society to the modern era, through the secrets and revelations of these characters’ lives. The plotline develops as a compelling depiction of a society steeped in the interwoven strands of guilt, shame, and obligation.
Your novel is arranged in three parts, which are all told in the first person point of view: the first two parts are narrated by a student, and the last part by Sensei, through a confession in a series of letters. In the first two parts, the young student tells the story of how he came to befriend Sensei, a man he believes can teach him how to fill a void in his life. When the student graduates from college, he is forced to come back home, in order to help taking care of his dying father.
Meanwhile, the first Emperor Meiji dies, and Sensei decides it is time to tell the student his life story. When, due to his father’s illness, the young man is unable to return to Tokyo, Sensei begins writing his life’s testament to his friend. In the third part, the narrative perspective changes from the student to the old man, and, as we read Sensei’s written testament, we come to discover a man constrained by guilt and weakness, who has not the courage to hold to either the traditional Japanese values or the individualistic Western thinking.
Carrying a shattered faith in the model of traditional Japan, Sensei is modern insofar he becomes at his core a lonely man – a fallen man, whose life is a slowly but steady descent into madness; a man who could only escape his guilt through either continuous suffering or suicide. The end of the Meiji era – a period during which Japan became Westernized at a fast rate- seems to have turned into anachronisms all of those men who, like Sensei, were torn between modernity and tradition. Much like your character, I feel you yourself existed between two worlds, the declining one and the new Western world – and the Meiji era was precisely this space of transition in between worlds.
For me, your novel reaches its climax in the scene in which the student is forced to choose between individuality (modernity), his father (the tradition) and his mentor Sensei (the in between place). This scene not only depicts the individual struggle that mirrors the Japanese collective transitions, but also conveys the moral themes and the dark assessment of the human condition Soseki builds up into his novel. Through his reading of Sensei’s letter, the student discovers his own capacity for treachery and betrayal. Both his loneliness and his disquieting confrontation with himself begin precisely when he identifies himself with other people’s loneliness and evil. Only when the student is about to betray his own father, he is able to recognize himself in Sensei’s confession of betrayal. Soseki explores the nature of evil and its sense of isolation, its alienating effects. Rooted not only in Buddhist spirituality, those themes receive an existentialist treatment, which could well be paired to the Western tradition defined by Karl Jaspers, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Martin Buber.
I am tempted to believe the story the student tells us, in the parts one and two, works as a response to the letter Sensei wrote to him years earlier. In this sense, I feel Kokoro can also be read as a collection of two testaments which are less an eulogy to the past than a meditation on the uncertainties and the gloom of the present. Your depiction of the alienation and anxiety prevailing during the Japanese rapid cultural transformation mirrors the alienation and anxiety felt by the student when his former life is about to fall apart. You write about the changing gender relations and the changing roles played by the individual within family and society, as the friendship between the student and Sensei is embedded in a period of changing attitudes towards honour and duty.
A homoerotic tone pervades the narrative since its begining, as the possibility of a sexual element illuminates the unclear attraction the student initially feels towards the older man. Sensei’s own end could be read as a homoerotic act: the act of loyally following an old friend into a shared fate. The female characters are scarce, and often described in a slightly misogynist tone. Their main strengths are usually described as masculine traits.
The story is told in a balance of narrative and dialogue, through vague conversations, in a lyrical and sensuous prose that nonetheless avoids flourishes. Its pace is slow and its tone is quiet, seemingly calm, yet somehow unsettling. The characters’ reluctance to say what they are thinking mirrors their isolation. The prose is brutal in its subtlety. Most of the characters are not named, which also contributes to the strong sense of isolation the novel succeeds in conveying: the main characters remain intensely anonymous. There’s no sense of time, either, except for the briefly mention to the death of Emperor Meiji.
Punching deep beneath the calm surface of your prose and its muted pain, I can hear the howling silence of a story cautiously guarded under the privacy – and loneliness – of the hell within. Shifting page by page with blunt force, this is a story of a man crying to be redeemed, a man crying to be let out of his personal heart of darkness: the heart we enter at the core of the novel, the heart of the matter, the heart we share, the kokoro.
Well done, Soseki-San. I hope to read more from you soon.
“I do not want your admiration now, because I do not want your insults in the future. I bear with my loneliness now, in order to avoid greater loneliness in the years ahead. You see, loneliness is the price we have to pay for being born in this modern age, so full of freedom, independence, and our own egotistical selves.”
― Natsume Sōseki, Kokoro
“I often laughed, and you often gave me a dissatisfied look, till you pressed me to unfold my past before you as if it were a roll of pictures. It was then I felt respect for you. Because you unreservedly showed me your resolution to catch something alive in my being, and to sip the warm blood running in my body, by cutting my heart. At that time, I was still living, and did not want to die. So I rejected your request, promising to satisfy you some day. Now I am going to destroy my heart myself, and pour my blood into your veins. I shall be happy if a new life can enter into your bosom, when my heart has stopped beating.”
― Natsume Sōseki, Kokoro
About the book
- Penguin Classics, 2010, tr. Meredith McKinney, 256 p.
- Original title: こころ – Kokoro
- First published in 1914
- My rating: 4 stars