Friday, March 25, 2011

Sanshirō by Natsume Sōseki

Reading Haruki Murakami again led me to this classic of Japanese 20th century literature, since Murakami provided the introduction to this latest translation by Jay Rubin. "Sanshirō" is the story of a young country boy who goes to Tokyo for his university education, and Murakami's introduction points out that, if the book is effective, it is because it provides an affectionate and accurate representation of the "fragrance" of this particular time in one's life, regardless of where the reader may live.
The setting is 1908. Japan, after centuries of non-contact with the West, is open to European and American influences in art, dress, religion, politics, philosophy and expression. The setting, then, is a hurricane of societal change, and that alone would be worthy of a panoramic novel of ideas. But Sanshirō, who has experienced rural life with its suppositions and superstitions, is thrust into modern Japan to receive his education. He approaches the city with a mix of skepticism, innocence, fear and expectation.
What follows then is a story with an intimate setting and a small cast of interrelated characters. "Sanshirō" is a novel of college life, but its most important aspects are not lectures or the ideas the characters wrestle with, but what characters learn about the world they will encounter, and themselves, and how they deal with each other. Just as in every university the world over, passionate young people display inordinate emotion over ideas they barely understand, but which dominate them. The students give birth to ideas that have been rubbed raw, already thought and rethought a thousand times. These minds are too young to know how unoriginal these fancies are, but vain enough to exult in the ideas as if they are brand new. "How many aeons did nature expend in fashioning a precious jewel?," one asks. "And how many aeons did the jewel lie gleaming in the earth until fate brought it forth?"
Sanshirō is a familiar character, a wise fool who is oblivious to experience as he makes friends with the ebullient Yojirō and pursues the shy Mineko. He "smells of the farm," Yojirō tells him, but his reticence keeps him in awe of the figures he encounters and mindful of danger.
This marks him, though, as a "coward," as evident in his first encounter with a woman on a train headed to Tokyo. He ends up sharing a bath and a bed in an inn with a strange woman, but nothing passes between them. It is only at their parting that he realizes she was waiting for him to make a move. Later, his mother repeats the charge that he has always been cowardly. Yet it took some courage for Sanshirō to venture to college in the first place. What we see is not so much a man who is avoiding danger as one who is blind to it. The only question is how willingly blind he is. He is learning, and more than anything, learning to understand. The emotional language of those he meets is foreign to him - just as foreign as "Hamlet" is when he waits for the Danish prince to say something more recognizably Japanese.
The question of Japanese identity lies dormant in the novel, as the definition is still being debated during this period. The Japanese are learning, in the early 1900s, to become part of a larger world community. There is awe at some western ideas and healthy skepticism. But a professor counsels Sanshirō from the beginning "not to surrender himself" to the ideas he encounters, which is also a theme running through the novel. All of these grand philosophical and societal ideas are nothing, the same professor says later, because man does not operate according to mechanical laws. The same experiences inspire different responses from men living side by side.
The professor offers another critique, in that western ideals have made people less hypocritical, because they are "hyper-villains" - instead of caring for others for the benefit of public approval, they now care for themselves out in the open. This has made society meaner, but more honest, "natural ugliness in all its glory," the professor says. This is one of the paradoxes of modern living, of course. We surrender civilization in the service of "honesty," but we instead give dishonesty a bigger home in wider society. We surrender altruism because it inconvenient, but we mourn the loss. And where does Sanshirō fit in? All he seems to want, even though he doesn't understand it, is Mineko.
The bittersweetness of college, though, is that it eventually ends, as does youth. Mineko will not marry Sanshirō, but only because he eventually proves the prophecy of his cowardice. Later on, Sanshirō learns that Mineko is a Christian, which makes her common judgment on others - that they are "stray sheep" - more understandable. It also makes the heart ache to hear her parting words to him, from Psalms 51: "For I acknowledge my transgression, and my sin is ever before me." She has mistakenly given her heart to a man who will not take it. He has learned something, but we are unsure if it is enough to change him.
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