© 1957 Natsume Soseki
A favorite history professor of mine typically assigns novels as part of his required reading, and for his Modern Japanese History course, I read a novel set in the last years of the Meiji period. The title refers to “the heart of things”. My instructor introduced it as being one of his favorite historical novels, and one that doesn’t seem foreign in the least. Despite this disclaimer, the novel does not fit western conventions of what a novel “is”: the formula of conflict, rising action, climax, and resolution do not easily fit the work. This by no means detracts from the reading experience: it makes it different. The book is divided into three unequal sections: the first two are narrated by a never-named college senior who describes his growing friendship with a resident of Tokyo, a man he refers to only as “Sensei”. Their friendship is developed in the first section, and the second section sees our narrator graduate from the university in Tokoyo and return to his parents’ home. Although he wants to return to Tokyo to begin his life — hopefully one like Sensei’s, involving no job and plenty of leisure time to putter around and read books — his father’s ailing health prevents him from doing so. As the Meiji period and his father’s life come to their end, our narrator receives a long letter from Sensei — unusual, because Sensei is not in the habit of writing letters, long or otherwise. That letter, “Sensi’s Testament”, constitutes the bulk of the book and makes him the effective main character of the novel. The book ends with Sensi’s revelations, making me wonder how the initial narrator might have reacted or responded to them.
What strikes me most about Kokoro is its sense of melancholy: whenever scenes from the books wrote themselves into my head, the skies were forever grey.The characters moved slowly under them, beset by frowns on their faces. A few characters try to remain chipper, but they can only “whistle in the graveyard”. Discussions from a sociological theory class came to mind: the author’s focus seems to be on human reactions to increasing modernity, and the resulting sense of alienation and loneliness. Fighting loneliness is a preoccupation of most of the book’s characters: the narrator seeks Sensei out as part of that fight, and Sensei’s own life has been altered dramatically by his own fight and his role in others’ fighting.
I would reccommend the book in the same way I would reccommend an interesting strain of tea: I think it should be experienced, and it leaves a thoughtful aftertaste.