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Book Review: Sanshiro (Penguin Classics) by Natsume Soseki

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In Haruki Murakami’s introduction to Soseki’s Sanshiro, Murakami digresses on his late in life discovery of the famous Japanese writer, and details how his early financial struggles (before Murakami became a famous writer himself) led to his discovery. Apparently, Murakami could barely afford books back in the early 1970s, and Sanshiro was one of the few novels his wife owned. Although Murakami spends more time discussing himself in his introduction than Soseki’s work, he does detail a bit of background for those Westerners who might not be familiar with the novel. Sanshiro is the first part of a trilogy, which is followed by Soseki’s later novels And Then, and The Gate. What can be said about Sanshiro is that it possess all the elements of that Soseki style, in that, Sanshiro is both a warm and humorous work, coupled with moments of societal insights and depth. These themes, of course, are applied within the Japanese culture, and encompass the changes from tradition into modernization throughout that time.

In many ways, Sanshiro the character is sort of the anti-Botchan. While Botchan the character is a spoiled young man from Tokyo who is sent to teach at a school in a rural community, Sanshiro is a young man who is void of much worldly experience, yet is sent to big city Tokyo to attend school. As a hallmark of many Soseki works, Sanshiro contains the ridicule of academia and incorporates humor while doing it. While Sanshiro is at university, he encounters a number of intellectuals and scholars, women he is unable to communicate with or understand, and does so all the while feeling out of place amid this large city. Soseki sets the light and humorous tone early on when Sanshiro notices that the Law and Letters building resembles a “squat sumo wrestler.”

The intellectuals Sanshiro encounters allow for interesting discourse without dipping too much into didacticism, and at the same time, the humorous elements indicate they are not to be taken too seriously. One member of the faculty of science that Sanshiro encounters is Nonomiya, a man he is encouraged to meet through the push of his mother in a letter. When Sanshiro first meets Nonomiya, he is given the chance to look through Nonomiya’s telescope — only he can’t see anything because the lens cap is on. Following the removal of it, the characters share an exchange involving the telescope that leaves Sanshiro clueless. Confusion and silliness often result from his conversations with both academics and women. It is not that Sanshiro is not smart enough to understand, it is that those he speaks to sometimes make little sense to both him and the readers. They make little sense because they are so ensconced within themselves.

Later, the narrator notes: “Finally, it was a mark of greatness that a man like Nonomiya, whose work was known even in foreign countries, should be living in an ordinary student rooming house. The shabbier the rooming house, the more he was to be respected.”

For a novel that is a century old, Sanshiro has a very fresh and current feel. The events that happen to Sanshiro are not unlike what happens to most young people who go off to school. At one point, scholars are compared to “paper lanterns” that “can do no more than glow feebly on a two-foot space around themselves,” and that “objects such as paper lanterns and slim pipes were relics of a bygone age, ‘of no use whatever to us young men’.”

In my earlier review of Soseki’s novel Botchan, I note: “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.”

Maybe now I need to rephrase that statement to for the most part Soseki translates well, as the one disappointing element of Sanshiro unfortunately resides in Jay Rubin’s translation. As it appears in the novel, the prose is very straightforward and lacking in any real poetry. The sentences are functional and formulaic. After having read a number of Soseki’s books by different translators, it is clear that these weaknesses reside with the translator and not with the writer. This disappointed me, and so I initiated a discussion with a friend of mine who not only speaks several Japanese dialects fluently but he is also very knowledgeable in Japanese literature. He remarked: “I'm not fond of Rubin's translations…there's no great flaw, but he seems to do a lot of little things wrong — inelegant phrasings, lack of sentence rhythm, failure to convey the atmosphere of a writer's prose, etc.”

About Jessica Schneider