Rhapsody in Penguins III — First Movement: Sanshiro

Sanshiro (1908)
by Natsume Soseki
translated by Jay Rubin

One of the issues that’s been plaguing me ever since I started this series a year and a half ago is the lack of international representation. All bar one of the Penguin Classics that I’ve bought come west of the Caucasus, which makes for an appalling record (and as of today, my library of Penguins reaches some 52 titles — all in good time, dear reader).

This isn’t because of any racism on the part of Penguin, who is in my eyes immaculate and can do no wrong. It’s because not a lot of the general readership really know or care about literature about that front, and as Penguin prides itself on its accessibility, the quality of work on that front is a little slipshod. I recently picked up the Penguin translation of Shen Fu’s “Six Records of a Floating Life” and dear God, the translation was so clunky that I had to resist the urge to report the bookshop for selling such an abomination.

Which is a pity, because common sense tells us novels from places that are not Europe are just as powerful in detailing the human experience. When one reads Sanshiro, one feels as if Natsume Soseki is not merely talking about the problems of a 23-year-old provincial lad trying to work his way through Tokyo. Consider this passage where Sanshiro arrives in Tokyo for the first time, and steps out onto the street to be greeted by the roar of traffic and city life.

Sanshiro was utterly startled. His education could no more prevent this shock than might some store-bought remedy. He felt a large portion of his self-confidence simply disappear, and it made him miserable. If this violent activity was what they called the real world, then his life up to now had been nowhere in touch with it.

Thought experiment: remove the name “Sanshiro”, and substitute any average name in. Just one simple action, but then the Japanese backdrop disappears, the early 20th-century temporal setting slips away. It becomes less of the story of one particular Japanese boy, and more like the average crisis of anyone who’s been thrust into a new environment. (That said, it’s probably introverts who lack self-confidence who’ll feel this the most.) Sanshiro the novel is commonly thought of as a coming-of-age story, and reading the novel, you kind of feel like it’s not just the title character going through life. It might as well be you in the story. Tokyo might be the capital of Japan, but it also has some stunningly transnational experiences on offer.

Of course, this is not to say that Tokyo gets the cosmopolitan treatment in the novel: it does not lose all sense of its identity and become a bland and blinding city of soulless neon-lit billboards. For one thing, that description applies to Shanghai. More importantly, though, we can still recognize Japan in the novel: it’s not just because Natsume has given us tastes of what we would know to be elements of Japanese culture — the kimonos, the Japanese gardens, and perhaps the crippling fear of uncertainty too. It’s also because we keep on being reminded of the debate on Japanese identity through the arguments taking place around Sanshiro.

In an age where identity seems to be of the utmost importance, it seems incredible that there could’ve been a prior era where people took their identity even more seriously than us, but Japan circa-1900 was that kind of place, apparently. And Natsume Soseki was one of those people who were caught in the rush of internationalization that Japan found itself in after the Perry Expedition forced open its gates: he was educated in London as Japan’s first native scholar in English literature, and his two years there must have been a lot like Sanshiro’s. He’d later call it “the most unpleasant years of my life”, which might be more due to his being an absolute introvert than any problems relating to that place. (I am one of those strange people who do not see London as an absolute hellhole.)

In any case, he was aware that he stood at a crossroads, one where Japan’s might and international outlook was clashing very, VERY hard with the deeply conservative values of the past. He didn’t like what he saw, of course — the deeply cynical Professor Hirota, who eats peaches on the train to Tokyo (HOW DARE HE) and gives us the memorable line “Japan is going to perish”, is apparently based on him — and listening to him talk, it does sound like it. Here is Sanshiro’s reaction upon reading best friend Yojiro’s essay in support of the Professor:

Yojiro’s essay… had much vitality, he wrote as if he were — all by himself — a representative of the new Japan, and this mood swept the reader along.

Okay, so Yojiro obviously stands for the new generation, one who is eager to catch up to the West and become every bit a Westernized person. Let’s continue, shall we?

But the thing was totally without substance, like a battle without a base of operations. Worse, it could be interpreted as a piece of political chicanery. But Sanshiro, a country boy, could not formulate his suspicions so precisely. He merely felt… that something about it dissatisfied him.

(Why do I get the feeling that he’s talking about this thinkpiece.)

Perhaps it was the case that Natusme Soseki was thoroughly conservative and didn’t like the relentless changes that people like Yojiro were putting the nation through. Perhaps he thought that they were all full of crap and didn’t have any valid points to make. But what I see as more important is not what our Japanese author says about nationalism — it’s how he suddenly veers off into the personal that strikes us. Sanshiro’s own problems, his uncertainty about how he’s going to tell Yojiro his essay sucks, overpowers his actual reaction to the essay, which is dispatched with quite quickly. It’s as if Sanshiro is saying “well, yes, this is not a very good essay and it might destabilize the world I live in, but never mind that — how do I feel?” As with all good novel protagonists, Sanshiro is more interested in himself than what is happening around him.

One might look at this sudden swerve and feel that it’s too sudden, that Natsume’s left the story hanging and that it should have been developed further. That hatred towards mindless aping of Western culture would have made for a great central message, after all: it resonated then, just as it resonates now. And perhaps that is the case, but the literature student in me will not stop nagging at me that there is more than that going on. As mentioned earlier in this article, the Japanese theme is only secondary, and far more important is the coming-of-age story at its heart. It’s not that Natsume’s unable to balance the two things out in his storytelling: I think it’s more because of his claim, earlier on in the book, where he says that “even bigger than Japan is the inside of your head”. It’s human experience he finds important and wants to talk about. Not Japan.

And this focus on the human experience fascinates me. Let’s face it, we get fed a lot of rhetoric telling us that we need to have an international outlook, telling us that bigger than our own, puny little city (or country, if you’re reading this from abroad) is a whole world, and that we should set our sights on escaping to or learning from these countries. I agree with the very last part, but if you ask me, what everything before that does is merely reinforce how different our countries are from each other. It establishes that there are lines in the sand, that there is a need to define ourselves according to political entities — whether we’re from Hong Kong, China, Japan or Macao, it becomes a big part of how we define ourselves.

But as somebody who defines himself as a citizen of the world, I think that it’s more important to focus on what we mean when we call ourselves a “human” race. After all, we’re humans first and foremost, and we are different from the animals. So what I think we should look for in our storytelling is literature that transcends all concepts of nationality and race, literature that tells us what the human experience is like. Local culture is, again, important. But far more interesting is the common journey that we all have as we travel towards the end. Friendship. Hatred. Love and loss. You see them the most in literature, and for good reason: these are things that every single reader, no matter where they’re from, can relate to. And perhaps that’s because these are the things that matter the most in life.

Next time: Although Sanshiro is very much a typical university student, he differs in one aspect: he is not a cocky, insufferable young man, unlike say Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network”, or Oscar Wilde, or the protagonist of “Gulliver’s Travels”, which we’re handling next.

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