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.