Sanshirō by Natsume Sōseki

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Sanshirō by Natsume Sōseki

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Mar 15, 2012, 9:01 am

I just finished Sanshirō by Natsume Sōseki. Sanshirō is a young man, about 22 years old, who travels from his country village to Tokyo to enroll in the prestigious university there in about 1909. The novel opens on the train carrying him to Tokyo, on which he has two encounters, one with a woman, one with an older man, that foreshadow much of the rest of the book. Sanshirō is obviously both intelligent and ambitious, but he has a lot to learn about both people, especially women, and the comparative sophistication of Meiji era Tokyo, the period when, as in Kokoro, the other book by Natsume that I've read, Japan was absorbing western ideas.

Very soon after his arrival in Tokyo, Sanshirō meets several people who will be part of his life for the rest of the book: his gregarious fellow student Yojirō, who is always plotting something; a scientist known to his family, Nonomiya; a professor, Hirota, who is somewhat detached from the world; and especially Mineko, an entrancing and yet mysterious young woman. Sanshirō, who is otherwise largely an observer, of people, of the streets and streetcars of Tokyo, of the sky and the clouds moving across it, becomes obsessed with Mineko, although I have to stress I do not mean "obsessed" in the way we think of the word today. He thinks about her, thinks about how he can get to see her -- but when he does see her, he is unable to do the right thing, to say what she would like to hear, to interact with her in a way that could move things forward. He is intimidated by her modernity at the same time that he is fascinated by it.

In addition to the Mineko thread, Sanshirō also becomes involved in an attempt to get a Japanese professor of western literature at the university, receives letters and instructions from his mother, along with information about a girl back home who doesn't interest him, and finds his way around Tokyo and the university.

As in Kokoro, Natsume's writing is very subtle. Just as Sanshirō observes the world, the reader observes Sanshirō and experiences what he is experiencing, even if at times the reader, or this one anyway, just wants to slap him and say "talk to her, already." It would be difficult to call this a coming of age novel, because Sanshirō still has a long way to go at the end of it, but he definitely is learning. I enjoyed this book and found it an excellent tale of a young provincial man gradually getting to know the wider world, as well as an intriguing portrait of a particular time and place.

As an aside, my edition had a lovely and informative introduction by Haruki Murakami.