Book Review: Sanshirō, by Natsume Sōseki

Sanshirō’s namesake protagonist journeys to Tokyo from his provincial hometown in 1908, to pursue his education in Western subjects. What he finds on arrival is no brave new world of expanding horizons but a stagnant morass of demoralization. On a basic level, the Western ideas he encounters are not liberating but imposing, adding nothing to the native culture but confusion:

‘The sky was so clear before,’ said Mineko. ‘Now the color is all muddied.’

Sanshirō took his eyes from the stream and looked up. This was not the first time he had seen a sky like this, but it was the first time he had heard the sky described as ‘muddied.’ And she was right, he saw. There was no other way to describe this color. Before he could say anything in reply, however, Mineko spoke again.

‘It’s so heavy! It looks like marble,’ she said, using the English word. She was looking up high, eyes narrowed. Then she moved her narrowed eyes slowly, until they were turned upon Sanshirō. ‘It does look like marble, don’t you think?’

Sanshirō had no choice but to agree. ‘Yes, it looks like marble.’ (p. 97)

Mineko was doing so well with “muddied.” Why did she switch to marble? Why did Sanshirō have no choice but to go along with it?

I confess that I remembered this passage incorrectly. I thought that Mineko had described the sky consistently as marbled and that Sanshirō concluded that marbled was the only adjective that suited it. The difference, however is only one of nuance, with the true text showing how an English word comes to replace a Japanese one and my misremembered version accepting the imposition of English as an accomplished fact, conforming to my experience of Japan in recent years. On drives along the hilly coastline of southern Hokkaido, our car frequently passes through tunnels, uniformly designated as ton’neru, which has always seemed to me like bad English and not Japanese. I wonder how the Japanese named tunnels before the arrival of Commodore Perry and what was wrong with the old name.  Why not call it a zuidō, using two kanji? (But then again, kanji are Chinese characters and zuidō is a Chinese pronunciation. Perhaps the Japanese really can’t avoid borrowing a foreign term, the only choice being the era in which the term was imported.)

At any rate, as though responding to the general marblization of things, a student at Sanshirō’s school addresses a gathering, “We do not study Western literature in order to surrender ourselves to it but to emancipate minds that have already surrendered to it.” (p. 116) Very soon after hearing this bold proclamation, Sanshirō attends a crowded track meet, which, auguring poorly for the emancipation project just announced, takes place under both the Japanese and the British flags.  

Sanshirō was disappointed to find that the ladies’ seats were separate from the rest and unapproachable for ordinary human beings; also, there were a lot of important-looking men here in frock coats, which made him appear less impressive than he might have wished. Ogawa Sanshirō, youth of the new age, had shrunk a little in stature. (p. 118)

Of course, it doesn’t matter if skies are muddied or marbled, or whose flag flies over the track meet, if sex segregation and aristocracy are still so prevalent. As Haruki Murakami observes in his introduction to the 2009 Penguin edition I read, “Western ‘modernity’…had not yet taken root in Meiji Japan, nor, perhaps, is it all that firmly rooted in our own day.” (p. xxxv)

As for the plot, it involves Sanshirō’s somewhat passive pursuit of the witty and cosmopolitan Mineko and leads, rather predictably, to the contradiction between free and arranged marriage, which is fundamental to the Westernization question. The persistence of arranged marriage, as evinced in the storylines of myriad Asian movies and TV dramas popular today, confirms the truth of Murakami’s observation.

Therefore, as I finish Sanshirō, and as I finish also the 2020 Japanese movie Aristocrats, which features an arranged marriage, I resolve that my next reading, perhaps my next several readings, will focus on the crucial conflict between arranged marriage and freedom in marriage. No sooner have I closed the cover of Natsume’s novel than I have rushed to the library to borrow Lynn Pan’s nonfiction When True Love Came to China, which has some bearing on Japan as well.

Book Review: Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami

I’ve theorized that Japanese literature seems to be the best adjusted to modern life. A singular lack of angst distinguishes novels such as Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, in which I take vicarious delight as its protagonists go about their lives at such places as diners, noodle shops, convenience stores, bus stations, bookstores, museums, and other mundane oases. Of course, Murakami’s characters aren’t simply going about their lives but are engaged in quests that are of great consequence to themselves if not to the universe as a whole. Isn’t that what we’re all doing: adventuring through the turnpike rest areas and shopping malls, like Don Quixote without the satire, discovering meaning wherever it is to be found?

Japanese fiction doesn’t abstract itself from the humdrum environment that produces it. Rather than to imagine more exciting times and places via historical fiction, say, Japanese writers make do with where and when they are. Or as Mr. Hoshino says in this book:

“We’re all pretty much empty, don’t you think? You eat, take a dump, do your crummy job for your lousy pay, and get laid occasionally, if you’re lucky. What else is there? Still, you know, interesting things do happen in life – like with us now.” (p. 306)

As a matter of fact, Mr. Hoshino is addressing his remarks to a man with the ability to talk to cats and to make it rain leeches.

But this book, like all of Murakami’s books, isn’t really about the paranormal. It’s about those not supernatural but nonetheless magical things that give our modern lives meaning: music and books and libraries.

A deserted library in the morning – there’s something about it that really gets to me. All possible worlds and ideas are there, resting quietly. (p. 313)

A library, even in the middle of a boring place like Takamatsu or Tacoma (or Taipei, as in the photograph), gives us all the magic we need. The same could be said of this dream of a book.


Book Review: The Stolen Bicycle, by Wu Ming-yi

Here is a passage from toward the end of the book:

I rode around [Taipei] but felt I didn’t know her anymore. She keeps on getting renewed, over and over again, as if in a rush to shed some sort of shell, the grotesque, mournful, scandalous past. With each renewal, so many things that shine with an incredible radiance in many people’s memories disappear. I felt a bit sorry and lonely. ‘Yes, this is gone, and that too!’ I could say that on practically every street. (p. 334)

Here is another passage, from more toward the end of the book:

I rode circles around the city, ring upon ring. As the slowest vehicle on the road, I was able to appreciate scenes the others left behind. (p. 359)

These two passages suggest the purpose of The Stolen Bicycle: to recapture, before it’s too late, the “grotesque, mournful, scandalous past,” which has already been erased from view but which yet lingers in memory. Using the protagonist’s father’s lost and found bicycle as a device, Wu Ming-yi embarks on an odyssey through a hundred years of Taiwanese history. His footsteps take us through the provinces of culture, including material culture, language, psychology, and family. The subtle implication of his narrative is that Taiwan is no mere subset of China but a unique mélange of aboriginal, Fujianese, Japanese, postwar Chinese, and Western influences.

Despite the overarching melancholic nostalgia, the tone of The Stolen Bicycle is actually rather positive.  Absent is the entitled, cosmic angst of Western literature, and the element of conflict is likewise missing. Instead, Wu’s narrator copes with bleak reality by cultivating private enthusiasms such as antique collecting and bicycle restoration. Often this sort of occupation leads to camaraderie (say, with fellow junk collectors), creating a sense of fellow travelers if not intimate friendship. Obviously, the attention given to junk collecting in the story points to the larger task of the writer, as he forages through Taiwan’s past; but the feeling  of wandering souls coming together stands in contrast to the strife for its own sake that one often finds in Western novels. (I wonder if some generalizations along these lines might be food for thought.) The passage describing a somewhat paranormal scuba dive in the basement of an old building makes it especially difficult not to think of Haruki Murakami. Perhaps Wu’s Taiwan, like Murakami’s Japan, is an outwardly peaceful but historically troubled land, compelling its literary types to become detectives of the past, as a sort of therapy.

I have made a study of Taiwanese literature in recent months and can report that The Stolen Bicycle may be the most accessible recent work to have been translated into English and therefore the most pleasant to read. Many other recent Taiwanese books have been written using experimental methods, like stream of consciousness. The Stolen Bicycle, by contrast, follows a straightforward first person narration, and it is, again, a lot like a detective story. I previewed this book in electronic form, which I don’t generally enjoy, but I found it nearly impossible to stop reading, even on a computer screen. It is jarring, about two-thirds of the way through, when the narrative device switches briefly from bicycles to elephants; but that is a minor complaint. The Stolen Bicycle is a fascinating book about a very special place.