A Suspenseful Sloweness: Natsume Sōseki’s Kokoro

Haruki Murakami is one of outstanding contemporary writers, and also someone whom I try to read everything written by him, even though I didn’t read all of his works (I guess I don’t want to consume him all of a sudden). In my eyes, his simplicity makes him different from his contemporaries. But this simplicity never turns out to be a banality. He often uses multiple writing techniques of different genres at the same time from science fiction to fantastic writing. Nevertheless, it is difficult to identify him with one unique style and genre. He is specialized in creating his own atmosphere and ambiance[1]; combined elements from different genres serve nothing but to internal construction of narrative. As he stated in his biographical work ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’, in his every work, he tries (and feels to be obliged) to find a new spring source at mountaintop, and that’s why he needs to write voluminous novels. Today, he is a prominent figure of writers’ arena; his novels are translated into different languages, different aspects of his works are discovered by academics; even the songs he referred in his novels are listed.
In Murakami novels, even an ordinary character (for example a truck driver in Kafka On the Shore) might discuss a philosophical problem or a symphony of Mozart in a natural manner. Almost in all his novels (as far as I read), a character is a bookworm, and Murakami is generous in sharing the name of the author and of the work. One of recurrent reference of Murakami is Natsume Sōseki who is one of the pioneers of contemporary Japanese literature and whom I discover thanks to Murakami. In fact, Murakami explicitly uttered that Sōseki is his favorite writer [2].
Unlike his pupil, Sōseki writes within a much more traditional way. The least fantastic or sci-fi element doesn’t take place in his works. Living between 1867-1916, Sōseki witnesses deep transformation of both political and social scene of Japan, before his visit to Cambridge in 1901. Kokoro (こゝろ) (1914), written after the death of Emperor Meji (1912) bears the traces of turmoil of Japanese society passing from feudal society to industrial and modern one. In the version I read, the introduction of Meredith McKinney (also the translator of the book) is quite explicative on social and political context of the novel as well as on the importance of Sōseki for the birth of modern Japanese literature.
kokoro
Indeed, Kokora has a very simple plot, focusing on the relationship between a college student and an old man. The college student, the narrator of the novel as well, meets with an old guy in a summer place, and something that even he doesn’t know take his attention in this guy. He sees something different, unusual, and wisely in him, and that’s why he calls him ‘Sensei’, while even Sensei doesn’t understand the reason of this attention and why the young guy attributes him such quality. After the young guy goes back to his ordinary life in Tokyo, he continues to see the old man, and witnesses his isolated, austere life with his wife. In the first part of the novel, entitled ‘Sensei and I’, we read visits of the young guy to Sensei’s house, and their sometimes complicated relationship. The young guy often cannot make sense of Sensei’s behaviors, his reclusiveness, his relationship with his wife. The second part, ‘My parents and I’ focuses on the relationship of the young guy with his family, by the way on the transformation of Japanese society, regarding the differences between generations. Again, in this chapter, the Sensei takes a central place, both for his importance and his mystery in the eyes of the young guy. These two parts somehow deal with the differences among generations, the transformations of Japanese society regarding the novelties brought up by Meji administration (modernism, education system, growing unemployment, etc.). (I think that McKinney’s introduction deals with these issues very well.) But the Sensei character remains as the real source of tension of the novel. This tension dissolves in the last part, entitled ‘ Sensei and His Testament’. I don’t aim to give a detailed analysis of this part, but rather, I would like to focus on a couple of points that take my attention the most.
Maybe the first thing could be said on the novel in general is its slowness. Natsume Sōseki never rushes to develop his characters. Although there isn’t any ‘big event’, an apparent antagonism in the novel, we still wonder who the Sensei is, what will be revealed under his character, and why he took so much attention of this young guy. Surely it is not a ‘what will happen next’ novel, but Sōseki knows how to keep interest alive. In the third part, the slowness reaches its peak, and turned out to be a slowness of the Sensei’s judgments, of his evaluation of his surroundings. Yet, this is not rumination or procrastination, but the rhythmic expansion of the text.
So, my second point is that Kokoro’s slowness is not limited only with its narrative side, but it also encompasses the characters’ visions, their perspectives in general. In the third part, the novel approaches almost to slowness of a philosophical text with its sensitivity to events, to behaviors, and practically to everything. To explain that point, I need to give more spoiler.

 

‘Sensei and His Testament’, the last part of the novel is actually a letter written by the Sensei for the narrator. In the second part, when the young guy went to his family’s city due to his father’s illness, he writes several letters to Sensei to ask him for finding a job, little bit with the pressure of his family. He doesn’t take an answer for these letters, which enhances his curiosity about Sensei. And finally, when he got an answer, it is the Sensei’s testament that uncovers all veils of mystery. In fact, this letter is a kind of brief story of Sensei’s life, explaining his retreat, his cold and distant attitude toward life.

 

The story begins when Sensei as a young college student settles into a lady’s house, who lives with her young daughter (Ojōsan). They have a quite calm life together, like and help each other. By the way, Sensei begins to be attracted to young daughter who is sympathetic, cheerful, and in good heart. Everything is so far so good until Sensei invites a friend of him (K), having financial difficulties, to live with him. Householder accepts this offer, since she likes Sensei and trusts him. Not everything changes suddenly, but slight changes start to take place. With the confession of K of his love of Ojōsan to Sensei, a chill ran down Sensei’s back. I know that it seems little bit cliché, but it’s not.

 

With this confession of K, firstly attitudes of K towards Ojōsan and then his every movement take attention of Sensei. Sensei starts to interpret almost everything occurring in the house. Not only a look, a word, a posture, etc. become objects of his interpretations, but also all these different elements intermingle with personal histories, approaches, philosophies, which would be effective in shaping characters’ personalities and their respective behaviors. Here, Sōseki lingers on meticulous details to such a point that as if he stops the flow of time, and he expands it horizontally. K’s family is member of a subsect of Buddhism, called Hongan-ji (本願寺) that demands a kind of ascetic life for its involved believers. K has this kind of religious background, having shaped his moral perspective, and which determines the character of K and his attitudes. K is quite determinant to establish an unshakable morality, and he pushes himself to the limits that any immoral behavior would be possible within him. Sensei is aware of this approach of K, and in his observations he takes it into account too. So, multiple elements from K’s relationship with his family, his education, his favorite writers to his philosophy, to his moral precepts become objects of Sensei’s interpretations in a mixed way. Every attitude of K, even the slightest moment like getting up to drink water in nighttime or moments of silences in their conversations trigger the process of interpretation for Sensei, which is not only limited with Sensei’s own perspective, but includes different elements at the same time. We, as readers, can easily conclude that this expansion in the Sensei’s perception of the world originates from his mood enmeshed with the feeling of love. Sensei digs the depths of world without necessarily tying them up to a conclusion.

 

Actually, we can easily understand Sensei’s situation. A deep feeling like love may conduce to such an obsession leading to interpret everything for the search of  a potential lover. If there is another one in the scene, then a feeling of jealousy is comprehensible too, and  the passion of interpretation may easily tend towards assumed opponent. But here, with Sōseki, we are not simply in a sphere of rivalry; he doesn’t simply describe a situation of jealousy. Sensei recognises perspectives of all characters in the scene (K, Ojōsan, landlady); and he orients his look into small details which will lead him to see, interpret, analyse various events at the same time: Japanese history, a sect of Buddhism, personal histories, philosophy, literature, traditional values, morality…

 

I will not give more detail on the novel, but what I want to say is that especially the last part of the novel arouses curiosity and interest with its slowness, even though it doesn’t present any adventurous event. Natsume Sōseki stretches the time of the novel to the sides, as if it doesn’t move forward, but is suspended in the midst of nowhere, which I think makes this novel quite original. After I read Kokoro, I’m convinced that Natsume Sōseki’s influence on Haruki Murakami is obvious. But Sōseki deserves attention independently from being one of favorite writers of Murakami.
[1] A blog article for Turkish readers on his ability of creating his own ambiance: http://yasamisaretleri.blogspot.ca/2012/09/usikava-ya-da-ambiyans-yaratmak.html
[2] Yusuke Takatsu; Mariko Nakamura (April 20, 2014). “Meiji-Taisho Era novelist Natsume becoming trendy across the world 100 years later”
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