Monday, June 20, 2016

Book of the Week

Kokoro, by Natsume Soseki, is the Japanese equivalent of books like Huckleberry Finn, A Tale of Two Cities, and Giants in the Earth, books you're expected to read in school because they are classics. From the Western perspective, this is grimly funny in light of the general theme of the novel; for anyone who is familiar with the Japanese classics of pen and film, it's not giving too much away to say the protagonist is very nearly the only character in the novel who doesn't die. Shades of Ran.

But that is part of what makes it fascinating, because Kokoro is not depressing despite being almost entirely without hope. This may have been because Soseki was writing at the end of the Meiji era, a period as disruptive to a people as has ever been known to any group of human beings outside of lost tribes discovered in Papua New Guinea or the Amazon. It is deeply self-reflective, almost to the point of narcissism, and it is interesting to see how modern it feels in some ways despite being very much a product of its time and place. It certainly merits its status as a minor parochial classic.

In any event, the book suggests an answer to one question I've had about Japanese literature since I was first reading it at university, which is why it is so remarkably lethal. I mean, the average Japanese literary novel contains more deaths than the average Western horror novel, and suicide is a more commonly utilized ending device than marriage. Given Soseki's influence and respected position in Japanese literature, this phenomenon is considerably easier to understand, as is the passive fatalism that pervades the work of modern Japanese writers like Haruki Murakami.

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Anonymous Goodnight June 20, 2016 5:17 AM  

I just purchased the Kindle version and look forward to reading it this week. The only Japanese novel I've read so far was Silence by Shusaku Endo, which was one of three books that brought me back to the faith after a many years.

Anonymous James Parliament June 20, 2016 5:37 AM  

@Goodnight - What were the other two books that brought you back?

Anonymous Goodnight June 20, 2016 6:23 AM  

The Screwtape Letters by Lewis and The Everlasting Man by Chesterton. I'd pretty much left the faith in my early 20s. About 12-13 years ago I stumbled on an audio version of The Screwtape Letters read by John Cleese and was fascinated. I listened to it weekly for almost a year before I bought the text version. While buying it a man at the shop recommended The Everlasting Man so I bought it also. I took them both on a business trip to Asia where a Christian colleague recommended I read Silence. It was a strange sort of synchronicity - just one after the other.

Blogger Dave June 20, 2016 6:29 AM  

suicide is a more commonly utilized ending device than marriage

Heh Heh

Anonymous Ellipsis Lacuna June 20, 2016 6:41 AM  

I've not read a lot of Japanese literature, other than the standard Dharma texts, in translation of course. (When dealing with literature in a language you can't read, there's always the problem of translation to deal with.) Of modern Japanese literature I'm only familiar with Yukio Mishima, who I guess most readers are or should be familiar with. He was a brilliant writer, and also (and maybe more intriguingly) a bit of a loose-cannon political figure of what we today might call the Alt-Right. It's hard to say how much of what he believed was sincere and how much was what we'd call culture-trolling, since he was a flamboyant egotist. Oh, and he was quite gay. Milo would probably like his work.

He has been called neo-Fascist, but I'm not versed enough in his ideology to comment on the accuracy of that claim other than to note that even to take any rightist position in his day (1960s) was a brave act, in an academic and literary culture where outright communism was all the rage. Like current-day Alt-Right activists, he was shouted down from college podiums more than once by raging commie students. Eventually he formed his own private “army,” with fashionably designed uniforms, and attempted to take over the Japanese government with a ridiculously tiny contingent of untrained followers. The effort was doomed to failure (which he probably knew, and which makes it even more intriguing); it would have been comical, but for his seriousness; he ended up committing seppuku in a government office that he had briefly taken over.

If you want a brief introduction to his work, which admitted I haven't read in a few years, I recommend the short works “Sun and Steel” and “Patriotism.” The former is an extended essay on physical culture, gymnastics and body-building, emphasizing the importance of maintaining a strong, healthy body for the benefit of mind and spirit. Maybe he waxes a bit *too* eloquently at times about the virtues of the muscular male body, somewhat giving away his predilections to those who read carefully.

“Patriotism” is a short story about the aftermath of a (real life) failed coup attempt that took place in 1936, staged by a group of disaffected officers. It centers on the leader of the coup and his wife. The man, recognizing his failure, decides to commit suicide to preserve his honor. He comes home to tell the news to his wife, over dinner, and of course she agrees to join him in the decision. They make love one final time before individually committing seppuku in the traditional fashion: He with sword to belly, she with dagger to throat. Their actions are described in all-too-vivid and almost loving detail, foreshadowing Mishima's own seppuku some years later.

I haven't really read his other works, but thinking about him has renewed my interest to maybe dig them out of whatever box I've got them buried in.

Anonymous James Parliament June 20, 2016 7:14 AM  

You've got me intrigued by "Silence" now. Going to look that up.

Anonymous T.E.Lawrence June 20, 2016 9:05 AM  

What makes Japanese horror movies so scary is that the protagonist often dies. There isn't that little safety net of 'I know the hero will escape'.

Blogger frenchy June 20, 2016 9:58 AM  

Japanese literature sounds like the eastern equivalent of French literature.

Blogger VD June 20, 2016 10:11 AM  

Japanese literature sounds like the eastern equivalent of French literature.

More death, considerably less adultery.

Blogger Were-Puppy June 20, 2016 1:08 PM  

Do any of you know if there is some kind of similar Japanese work like the "Romance of the Three Kingdoms"?

It may be that Kokoro is similar.

What I mean is, something written during a time of a lot of turmoil and changes in their culture.

Blogger VD June 20, 2016 1:20 PM  

It may be that Kokoro is similar.

Not even a little bit.

Blogger John Williams June 20, 2016 1:48 PM  

It was a strange sort of synchronicity - just one after the other.
Like there was a Hand guiding them.

Anonymous Goodnight June 20, 2016 8:43 PM  

Yeah, that occurred to me a little later.

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