Published in 1914, Kokoro is considered to be Natsume Soseki’s finest novel, and as is, it is a very good book, albeit perhaps not as perfect from start to finish as some of the works by the more recent Japanese writers I’ve read. In fairness, Soseki came before them, so they had his work to play off of, but having said that, Kokoro is still a very good book, one well worth the read. Told in three parts, the first two parts are a bit more complex and interesting than the last third of the book, which is a bit of a disappointment only by comparison.
The book opens with the section “Sensei and I,” where the narrator is a young student digressing on his friendship with an older mentor of his, one he refers to as “Sensei.” This first section does an excellent job dissecting the aspects of human closeness and isolation, and how both are related to loneliness. The student wishes he could be closer to his mentor, but Sensei is distant and feels a disdain for humanity. Sensei also is aware of the “idolization” the youth has for him, and warns him not to feel these things, for they will only lead to disappointment. At one point Sensei says: “You are like a man in fever. When that fever passes, your enthusiasm will turn to disgust. Your present opinion of me makes me unhappy enough. But when I think of the disillusionment that is to come, I feel even greater sorrow.”
There are moments of good philosophical exchanges, revealing that Sensei perhaps doesn’t think too highly of himself after all (and readers will come to learn why) yet his student admits to trusting Sensei’s opinions more than he does his own professors. The role of academia as authority is greater explored in the second section, titled “My Parents and I,” when the narrator challenges his dying father’s opinions as far as the weight of academia in one’s life. The father is happy he’s managed to live to see his son graduate from college, although his son tells him that graduation from college is no big deal, since schools crank out hundreds of graduates each year. The dialogue exchanges are tender and realistic, creating a touching and empathetic portrait of the father, while at the same time, powerfully revealing the relationship between father and son. Later, the father admits to both the advantages and disadvantages in educating one’s children, in that, once children are educated, they “go away and never come home.” The father goes even further to state: “Why, you can almost say that education is a means of separating children from their parents.”
Part two is the strongest of the three parts, for it has the intricacy of the first to play off of, and the mystery pertaining Sensei in the third has yet to be revealed. While home, a letter from Sensei arrives, though the student feels he must wait to read it, for his father’s illness is demanding too much of his attention. There are some excellent observations made via way of the narrator, about the physicality of his father’s illness, how his glasses remain unused in their case, and how his father can no longer muster the strength to hold the newspaper. These observations go beyond mere bland description — they give insights into the characters as well noting interesting things, such as the degree to which an illness can impose on all areas in one’s life, not just on one’s body. Or in other words, life and death are not just the body alone, but something that goes beyond it.