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Kokoro Paperback – Feb 23 2010
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"This elegant novel...suffuses the reader with a sense of old Japan."
-Los Angeles Times
"Soseki is the representative modern Japanese novelist, a figure of truly national stature."
About the Author
Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) is one of the best-known Japanese authors of the 20th century and considered as the master of psychological fiction. As well as his works of fiction, his essays, haiku, and kanshi have been influential and are popular even today.
Meredith McKinney holds a PhD in medieval Japanese literature from the University in Canberra, where she teaches in the Japan Centre. Her other translations include Ravine and Other Stories, The Tale of Saigyo, and for Penguin Classics, The Pillow Book and Kusamakura.
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Top Customer Reviews
This is a story about a friendship between to unnamed characters, a young man and an enigmatic elder whom he calls "Sensei".
Sensei is haunted by tragic secrets that have cast a black cloud over his life and stunted his ability to live, to truly live. Sensei eventually begins to open up to his young friend but it isn't until Sensei writes his young friend a long letter that we truly come to understand why Sensei was the man he was. The contents of the letter were quite startling and completely surprising. When I read one certain part of the letter, I actually sucked in an audible gasp!
I was so engrossed in this novel that I couldn't believe I was on the last page already, I wanted there to be more. I highly recommend this novel for everyone. And, while you're all reading this one, I'm going to order some of his other novels which sound equally as good.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Kokoro is an interesting novel. It is broken down into 3 parts. It is interesting that the chapters are all nearly identical length, about 2 pages each chapter in this version. So there are 110 chapters. But it's not a terribly long read.
The first section deals with the protagonist and his relationship with 'sensei', a seemingly well to do older man. They become acquaintances and finally develop an almost father-son relationship. The second part deals with the protagonist's father who is dying and his relationship with the family. The final section is actually a memoir sent to the protagonist by 'sensei' detailing the events of his younger life and shedding light on some of the mystery behind 'sensei'.
This translation is pretty amazing. I don't read Japanese (at least Kanji though I can read some hiragana pretty well), but I do understand much of the Japanese language. It is difficult to translate not because of the actual words, but because Japanese is subject-object-verb instead of subject-verb-object as in English. So if you literally translate you will sound like Yoda. "I, to this location, must now go," and such. So it is interesting that this translation seems to have less fluff than other translations. Japanese is a relatively straightforward style of writing, focusing on precision and emphasis on more emotions from fewer words. I think this translation caught the original Japanese style and kept the sentences shorter and crisper with more emphasis on the key words and phrases and less on lengthy adjectives. Also, Soseki likes to keep is characters vague and nameless (sounds a lot like a modern Japanese author I know), so they seem to have more mystique. Although it is believed that the 'sensei' character was based at least in part on Soseki himself.
Natsume Soseki is considered the father of modern Japanese literature. He was in what I like to call the Japanese Algonquin Tatami (I totally made it up but it kind of fits). It was a group of talented, though seemingly radical authors in the first half of the 20th century in Japan. Soseki traveled to England and developed a number of neurosis there and upon his return to Japan. His works are peppered with satirical elements, this novel less so than others such as 'I am a Cat'. But I mention this so that folks understand a bit of his influence to his writing. We was definitely a critic of the 'modern' Japanese society of the early 1900s.
I would HIGHLY recommend reading Botchan first. Botchan is Soseki's Huck Finn if you will. It is widely praised for its quality, its flow, and its interesting and very smart alecky protagonist. I actually equate the protagonist to Holden Caufield from Catcher in the Rye. Kokoro is among Soseki's most serious novels and is cited as a major influence by many great Japanese authors such as Yukio Mishima.
Fun fact: Natsume Soseki graced the 1000 yen bank note from 1984 to 2004. Wouldn't it be cool to have Mark Twain and Edgar Allen Poe on US bills?
Additionally, because I am a casual reader I was delighted to discover that every chapter is approximately 2 pages long.
Overall, Kokoro is a Japanese classic that offers an emotional and compelling read.
It's easy to tell that Natsume Soseki was concerned with themes of isolation, especially loneliness resulting from the rapid social changes during the Meiji Period of Japan, when Japan was rapidly adapting technology and the cultural customs of western countries. It's hard for me to relate to, but I think there are some similarities to today with how the internet has changed the dynamics of how people relate to one another. While being more and more connected in every way we are still interfacing with a screen isolated from the outside, creating a new kind of loneliness.
There's also a lot to take away from this novel as historic piece of work. One being that no western novel of the same period could ever sustain the kind of avoidance and mystery of the past for so long. By applying to the very traditional Japanese custom of discretion Soseki manages to create an atmosphere of suspense in what amounts to a slow plodding character driven novel. The other is that Meiji Period must have been very hard for much of the older and more traditional Japanese to adjust to. Ever society has a period of immense change in its history, but I get a sense that this was especially traumatic for a society like Japan that had been closed to the outside for long. A very worthwhile look at the affects of the Meiji Period.