Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Gate by Natsume Soseki (Part 2)

The new (2013) translation of Natsume Sōseki's Meiji-era novel, The Gate, has an exceptionally useful introduction by Pico Iyer, who lives in Japan and has written his own book set in Japan, The Lady and the Monk. He begins by saying, "Japanese literature is often about nothing happening, because Japanese life is, too . . . [T]he individual's job in public Japan is to keep his private concerns and feeling to himself and to present a surface that gives little away. That the relation of surface to depth is uncertain is part of the point; it offers a degree of protection and makes for absolute consistency. The fewer words spoken, the easier it is to believe you're standing on common ground."

This does not make Japanese literature easy for Western readers. As one person commented about The Gate on Amazon, "I just couldn't understand where the author wanted this story to go."

It's not much of a story. Here's the jacket description: "A humble clerk and his loving wife scrape out a quiet existence on the margins of Tokyo. Resigned, following years of exile and misfortune, to the bitter consequences of having married without their families’ consent, and unable to have children of their own, Sōsuke and Oyone find the delicate equilibrium of their household upset by a new obligation to meet the educational expenses of Sōsuke’s brash younger brother. While an unlikely new friendship appears to offer a way out of this bind, it also soon threatens to dredge up a past that could once again force them to flee the capital. Desperate and torn, Sōsuke finally resolves to travel to a remote Zen mountain monastery to see if perhaps there, through meditation, he can find a way out of his predicament." I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say he doesn't.

Among the challenges for the Western reader: Indeed, almost nothing happens in the 114 pages. Sōsuke seems congenitally unable to make a decision. The fact that Sōsuke and Oyone marry without the families' blessing not only means they are cut off from their relatives, but Oyone's brother—and Sōsuke's best friend—has to drop out of college (as does Sōsuke) as a result. The web of obligations Sōsuke feels is much more extensive and heavy than any constraints most Americans feel.

All that said, I think it's an interesting and convincing picture of Japanese life and Meiji-era (1868-1912) Japan. Sōsuke and Oyone are scraping by but they still have a maid. Sōsuke's cousin has a number of get-rich-quick schemes. Sōsuke's aunt and uncle (apparently) sold his patrimony and kept the money; Sōsuke accepts this the way he would accept a snow storm or an earthquake. As Iyer writes, "It takes a while for a Western reader, perhaps, to realize that in Sōseki's novels, as in Japan, external details are not just decoration; they're the main event. It's as if foreground and background are reversed, so that it's the ads in the streetcars, the sound of laughter from a neighbor' house, the talk about the price of fish that are in fact the emotional heart of the story."

Once you realize this really is a different culture and open yourself to its possibilities, I think the rewards are well worth the effort.

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