0299 | Botchan – Natsume Soseki

0299 | Botchan | Soseki | 63% | Good

Context: While I was reading this, a friend who was going away lent me her little runaround. Didn’t run around on it much though.

REVIEW

Lived in Japan for years and never read this although I heard a lot about it. In fact, I saw more of Soseki on the old Y1,000 note than I did in book shops. Why I never read it probably had something to do with fiction not being good enough for me back then. Fool. Anyway, read it now and although it wasn’t the greatest novel I’ve ever read, it took me back to Japanese schools I briefly had something to do with and Shikoku where I briefly, and somewhat foolishly, went one New Year.

Botchan is the book’s title and nowhere in the book is the narrator’s name given. It is assumed that Botchan is the narrator although how the world thinks this is the case, I’m not sure. Anyway, he graduates from teacher’s college and, full of idealism and restlessness, takes a teaching position in Shikoku, then and now regarded as a social backwater of Japan, only slightly more respectable than Hokkaido which at least has cows.

He soon realises that he’s in a time warp in a small back of beyond town with a teaching staff who he cannot fathom and students who make his life a misery. He fights this and, in the process, faces his first moral battles over his behaviour as he has to come to decisions about who he will side with and what, if any, ideals he will compromise.

It’s a short book and it was over, I felt, before it really got going. I never really enjoyed the prose. My version was not well translated I’m afraid and this didn’t help. This extract was typical of Yasotaro Morri’s translation:

"As I wrote it down in my record-sheet, I’m 23 years and four months."

"That’s it. So you’d be done by some one in unexpected quarter."

"I’m not afraid who might do me as long as I’m honest."

Answers on a postcard please….

I couldn’t really see why it’s so influential in Japanese literature but I think this is more my ignorance of that scene than anything else. Perhaps the novel questioned things that previously had never been questioned in mainstream literature. Anyway, it’s influence survived the fascist rise of the early 20th century (whereas a lot more writing did not) and the novel remains one of the most beloved and widely read novels in Japan.

OPENING LINE

Because of an hereditary recklessness, I have been playing always a losing game since my childhood.

CLOSING LINE

So Kiyo’s grave is in the Yogen temple at Kobinata.

RATING

0299 | Botchan | Soseki | 63% | Good

Key: Legacy | Plot / toPic | Characterisation / faCts | Readability | Achievement Read more about how I come up with my ratings

  • fael March 2, 2011, 2:02 am

    I read the J Cohn translation and was interested to see that the opening sentence was quite different: ‘Ever since I was a child, my inherent recklessness has brought me nothing but trouble.’ Cohn’s translation works better from an English perspective, but the sentence structure from Morri’s translation is closer to the Japanese original. From my own experiences in doing translations during language studies, it seems to me that Morri’s translation is awkwardly trying to keep every nuance of the original, and as a result, it feels a bit laboured and like it was done word-for-word. But that’s only what I could tell from the limited examples given in your review.

    Cohn’s version was perfectly fine, and I would highly recommend reading it if you had the chance and wanted to know why the novel was so ingrained into the Japanese consciousness.

    It is a coming-of-age story that I suppose would ring most resonant with adolescent Japanese, for the rebellion against authority, which is a much bigger thing in a conformist society like Japan’s.

    What I found interesting though, is that one of the sub themes of the story is the relationship between Bocchan and Kiyo, the fallen member of the aristocratic race who has become his servant. It’s a relationship that is so complex because like much of Japanese interactions, much more is left unsaid than said. It was during a time when the old hierarchy was falling, and a generation before, Bocchan would not be brought up by a woman like Kiyo. There is a quiet, subtle dignity in the way their relationship is handled which I found rather touching.

    Reply
    • Arukiyomi March 2, 2011, 1:54 pm

      great comment… thanks so much for posting it. Yes, I do agree with you about Kiyo. If I do come across this other translation, I will make a point of reading it again to see how it compares… and to see if I can grasp the author’s point better.

      Reply

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