Soseki Natsume is a great writer to have in anyone’s collection. At his best, his prose is lush and rife with human observation and insight. He is capable of genuine pathos as seen in his novels such as Kokoro and I Am a Cat, but he is also capable of great humor and satire, as in the case of both Cat and Botchan. Soseki is also a writer that works well to balance against the more intense Yukio Mishima, in that, Mishima seems to have little with regard to a sense of humor, while Soseki can playfully poke fun at his culture, himself, and humorously illuminate human ignorance so well. I’ve wondered what Soseki might have thought of Mishima, though he died before even knowing what a Yukio Mishima was, or even that World War II occurred. Soseki’s novels, many of which were written around or about one hundred years ago, are just as fresh and relevant now as they were at their creation.
The name “Botchan” literally translates to “boy-master,” and the novel is the story of a middle-class Tokyo-born boy who has freeloaded off those around him. He is his parents’ younger son, and his older brother is the favorite child. But we don’t pity Botchan, for we soon learn why this is the case. Botchan is lazy and full of a sense of entitlement. He lacks passion and drive, and since he does not want to get a job, after his father dies he instead decides to attend school (which is paid for by his brother), believing that with academia will come an easy life. That is, a life far easier than that of having to work.
Eventually, he takes a teaching position in a rural community as a math instructor, and this only leads to humorous squabbles among teachers and students. Botchan, who believes he is superior to these simple country folk, ends up getting more than he expects when his sleeping bag gets overtaken with grasshoppers one night. Then, when he calls the students he believes are the culprits, all deny even knowing what a grasshopper is. When the students respond with such an inane response, Botchan reacts with:
‘“You do not know a grasshopper? You shall see it now.” But happening to have no grasshoppers on hand, as I had swept them all away, I called in the janitor again and told him to bring the insects he had put away. He said that they had already been cast away into the dirt hole, and asked me if he was to bring them to me again.”
The tone is light, absurd, and fun to read. Although Botchan is egotistical, spoiled and believes himself to be smarter than he really is, he is still a somewhat likeable character, even though one laughs at his frustrations and struggles. His sense of entitlement makes readers cheer for others to catch him at his pretensions.
Soseki does an excellent job capturing the narrative voice, and although Botchan is entertaining, I would not rank it as an overall profound a work as Kokoro or I Am a Cat. The pathos just isn't there. Yet having said that, just as Soseki accomplished in xCat, Botchan does an excellent job of ridiculing academia and all the pretension that goes along with it. Moments in the novel are set up in such a way that allows the readers to know what is ahead, and readers will take pleasure in watching Batchan basically walk right into his own traps. Botchan humorously gives his own personal nicknames to many of the people he encounters, such as “Badger” for the vice-principal of the school. Others include “Porcupine,” “Red-shirt” or “The Hanger On.” At one point, Botchan notes:
“There is in the world an obtruder like Noda, the Clown, who will thrust himself upon you uninvited. Porcupine is a fellow who, carrying a proud head on his shoulders, thinks Japan would be placed in a crisis if he were not there. On the other hand, Red-shirt is such a vain fellow who esteems himself the monopolizer of cosmetics and dandyism. Principle Badger thinks himself an incarnation of education dressed in a frockcoat. Each has a world of his own, in which he is king.”
Note too, that Botchan is someone who can find the flaws in everyone around him but himself. Though it is his very arrogance that makes reading Botchan so fun. Botchan is also told by his childhood servant (Kiyo) to not give people nicknames because she warns him that such will only “draw enmity” upon him. Of course, Botchan does not listen, and continues onward in his nick-naming mockery.
The novel, published by Tuttle Press, is presented in an attractively bound edition. Translated by Umeji Sasaki, there are a few instances of spelling errors and the occasional incorrect word selection, but they are minor and don’t distract from the overall narrative. In fact, Soseki appears to be one of those writers who translates well no matter who is doing the translating, for his prose is always lively, void of trite phrasings, and full of insightful observation. Botchan is a very lean read, finishing at fewer than two hundred pages, and although it is “lighter” in subject matter compared to a later work like Kokoro, Botchan is great comedy that handles its subject well, so don’t let Botchan fool you. (Too much).