Ben Winch's Reviews > Kusamakura

Kusamakura by Natsume Sōseki
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it was amazing
bookshelves: asian, japanese, 5-stars

Beautiful. Joyous. Sharp, clear, precise. Soseki’s best, I think, for its freedom, for its glow. True, from here on near everything he wrote had the magic, but like Kafka’s his characters were hemmed in, in darkness. Here, from when the unnamed “I” appears on a mountain path until he disappears at a train station as the world calls from down the tracks, all is glittering. I couldn’t read this when I was down; it demanded I engage with it, bring heart to it, enjoy it. I know not everyone (few people, even) will feel this. The 150-page mountain idyll of a painter who never paints. A “haiku novel” preoccupied with stillness. A cod-philosophic essay on alienation, the artist’s role in society, Japan versus the west, the “nonemotional”. Not that it’s plotless (the plot, though simple, is taut, engaging) or experimental (it is, but subtly; not for Soseki vulgar flash and histrionics), but it’s quiet, thirst-quenchingly so. For Soseki, anything less (anything louder, brasher, less disciplined) would be a failure. But where in The Gate or Light and Darkness this reserve might constrain him, here it sets him free. Where The Gate takes place (until its pained Zen-temple denouement) in a virtual burrow – wintry Tokyo unseen outside – Kusamakura is spring, mountains and sea, a wide chessboard on which his proud sharp-carved characters (which, as Eddie Watkins says, are always chess-pieces) move with full-extended ease. Where Light and Darkness follows its ailing protagonist through successive contortions in the name of duty, Kusamakura’s “I” moves unhindered, able to see all from its lucent mountain height. Without it, Soseki’s fame would be assured. With it, we have a picture of his first steps into maturity, newly aware of his mastery but unenslaved by it, not yet the professional writer (Japan’s first) hemmed by deadlines and reputation.

Re the new translation, at first I was suspicious:

As I climb the mountain path I ponder –

If you work by reason, you grow rough-edged; if you choose to dip your oar into sentiment’s stream, it will sweep you away. Demanding your own way only serves to constrain you. However you look at it, the human world is not an easy place to live.


In the old translation (The Three-Cornered World by Alan Turney):

Going up a mountain track, I fell to thinking.

Approach everything rationally, and you become harsh. Pole along in the stream of emotions, and you will be swept away by the current. Give free reign to your desires, and you become uncomfortably confined. It is not a very agreable place to live, this world of ours.


Nor did I buy the line that “English, unlike Japanese, cannot sustain occasional shifts to past-tense narration”. (See Sverre Lyngstad’s Hamsun translations for a deliberate muddling of the tenses, or – the first name that occurs to me – Michael Ondaatje for a native-speaking equivalent.) But by the end, and having kept Turney’s translation beside me throughout, I came to trust and at times delight in Meredith McKinney’s work.

And so from him I learn the fate of this young man, who is destined to leave for the Manchurian front in a matter of days. I’ve been mistaken to assume that in this little village in the spring, so like a dream or a poem, life is a matter only of the singing birds, the falling blossoms, and the bubbling springs. The real world has crossed the mountains and seas and is bearing down even on this isolated village, whose inhabitants have doubtless lived here in peace down the long stretch of years ever since they fled as defeated warriors from the great clan wars of the twelfth century. Perhaps a millionth part of the blood that will dye the wide Manchurian plains will gush from this young man’s arteries, or seethe forth at the point of the long sword that hangs at his waist. Yet here this young man sits, beside an artist for whom the sole value of human life lies in dreaming. If I listen carefully, I can even hear the beating of his heart, so close are we. And perhaps even now, within that beat reverberates the beating of the great tide that is sweeping across the hundreds of miles of that far battlefield. Fate has for a brief and unexpected moment brought us together in this room, but beyond that it speaks no more.


In another register:

Nor do I exert myself in climbing the temple steps; indeed, if I found that the climb caused me any real effort, I would immediately give up. Pasing after I take the first step, I register a certain pleasure and so take a second. With the second step, the urge to compose a poem comes upon me. I stare in silent contemplation at my shadow, noting how strange it looks, blocked and cut short by the angle of the next stone riser, and this strangeness leads me to climb a further step. Here I look up at the sky. Tiny stars twinkle in its drowsy depths. There’s a poem here, I think, and so to the next step – and in this manner I eventually reach the top.


That Soseki wrote (or published) this in the same year as the youthful Botchan seems incredible. If, as he claimed, he wrote it in a week I’m stunned. With the refinement of the calligraphist or woodblock-printmaker, in a single bound, he joins the masters. That he’d never write like this again makes it all the more precious. As I said, this time around, there were days on which I didn’t quite feel up to this. Ask me after my third reading and I might tell you it’s an all-time favourite.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
November 1, 2014 – Finished Reading
December 17, 2014 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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Rowena Wonderful review~


Stephen P I really enjoyed this review Ben. Especially the parts that point out our part as readers. That we need to be up for a certain work, to give of ourselves. There is a responsibility there. The novel is not sitting there waiting to entertain us.

Your descriptions of the sense and essence of the book make it necessary to break my very recent promise to not add any more books. I now have enough to fill this and two more lifetimes. I've scurried through GR but have found no suggestions where to find the next two necessary lifetimes. So, the solution is to toss reason over the side of the mountain and add this book.


message 3: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Winch Why thank you Rowena.

And Stephen, yes, I think that's crucial to remember: I actually think the better the novel the less likely it is to be "waiting to entertain us". So often I start things and put them down, sometimes in frustration with the work and sometimes with myself. I don't like to waste a good novel.

Funnily enough I thought of you as I wrote this review. I had an inkling it might force your hand into buying the book and wondered if you would like it or not. It's certainly unlike Juan Rulfo, but may (like Rulfo) awaken your New Yorker's senses to the power of landscape. Also its meditative slant, I suspect, might appeal to you. And at the very least you will have sampled of a different paradigm. Have you read much Japanese fiction? If not, Soseki is the place to start. Looking forward to your review.


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