Kokoro by Natsume Soseki

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Kokoro by Natsume Soseki

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Jan 5, 2012, 12:09 am

A place to post comments on one of Soseki's most read novels.

I am interested to see how the writing style and characters (nearly inseparable in this work) compare to other Japanese novels, especially of this era. I can't imagine anything like this being written by a western writer.
My review:
I couldn't put this book down, which is odd, since is has very little plot. The subtle but effective character development really drew me in. There is also a feeling of dread that is felt from the beginning but that gets more and more oppressive and desperate right up to the end. I had to continue reading to find out what happened, but at the same time, deep inside I knew exactly what happened from the start and read on to try to prevent the inevitable. Given the themes of the novel, I assume this was an intentional effect. I also found it amusing that in Part 3, when Sensei was young, I forgot that young Sensei and original narrator were different characters. Again, likely a brilliant ruse by Soseki.

I am not familiar enough with Japanese history to appreciate the grander picture of this novel, but on its own, it's still a wonderful read. Perhaps through my Japanese readings this year, I will begin to better understand Kokoro. 4.5 stars

Feb 17, 2012, 4:20 pm

This is very strange because I thought I posted my review here earlier today. In any case, here it is.

This is a deceptively simple, yet haunting, novel that I've found myself thinking about since finishing it yesterday. On the surface, it is the tale of three students, one narrating his story in a present of around 1912, and another reflecting in 1912 on his days as a student, and his friendship with another student, some decades earlier. The helpful introduction, in my edition, by the translator describes the Meiji period in Japan, from 1868 to 1912, as a time of turmoil in which western ideas were being introduced, transforming the Japanese culture and way of life.

It is a story of deception, betrayal, friendship, family conflict, alienation, illness, and death told in a way that illustrates these without for the most part overtly calling attention to them. From the beginning, there is a sense of foreboding, as the 1912 student meets an older man, whom he calls Sensei, or teacher, who regularly visits the grave of his friend, known as K, but will not share with the student, or even his wife, why this is so important to him. The two get closer, and then the student leaves Tokyo to spend time with his family and dying father. While he is away he gets a long letter from Sensei, which forms the last part of the book, in which he tells the story of his student years, his friendship with K, and how he became the man the student met after K's death.

The reader is filled with apprehension as the story develops, knowing, in a way the student is too immature to realize, that Sensei's secret is grim and that the ending will not be good. The writing is extremely subtle, so that the reader, at least this one, almost has the feeling of experiencing the development of the characters the way they themselves do, yet is propelled through the almost monotony of everyday life to find out what happens. At the same time that the story is in some ways quite modern, it seems very rooted in a particular time and place, and I found it interesting to learn about some of the older Japanese customs and beliefs, some of which feel quite alien, like the practice of letting children (not babies) be adopted by other families who can provide them with greater financial and educational resources, the significance of suicide, and some Confucian (or Buddhist???) ideals.

According to the translator, "kokoro" means "heart," but in a broader sense than we understand it. She explains it means "the thinking and feeling heart" as opposed to "pure intellect," and indeed that is a theme of the book, something the characters struggle with. I am eager not only to read more by Sōseki but also more by other Japanese authors so I have more of a context for what I'm reading.