Wednesday, 24 February 2016

What's the Most Re-readable Work in Japanese Literature?

In a Guardian article last year, author Stephen Marche coined the word 'centireading' in discussing the merits of reading a work of literature 100 times. This set me thinking: if you were to choose a classic of Japanese Literature worthy of being re-read 100 times which one would it be?

There's certainly plenty of Japanese books I'd love to go back and re-read two or three times: 'The Tale of Heike' or Junichiro Tanizaki's 'Makioka Sisters' or plenty of things by Edogawa Ranpo all spring to mind. But 100 times? For me, if it was even 5 times, that would immediately rule out both exhausting monster books like 'The Tale of Genji' and contemporary modern novels.

Indeed I think there could only be one answer: 'Botchan', the 1906 novel by Natsume Soseki. I'm confident that I could read 'Botchan' 100 times and never tire of it. Indeed, I suspect I would get something new out of it on every reading. Let me briefly explain the main reasons why.

Firstly, sheer readability. If you are going to read something 100 times, you don't want something that's difficult to get through, full of longeurs and in general need of an edit. You need a work where every word counts, that has an unstoppable driving momentum. Botchan is a novel that picks you up in the first sentence and after taking you on an exhilerating ride drops you off neatly at the end, leaving you wanting to do it all over again. And again. And again.

Botchan is like this because of the particular way it was written. Soseki wrote the novel in a period of less than two weeks in his 'spare time' while he was still holding down teaching jobs at three educational institutions and returning to a home with four small children. The following year Soseki would give up his teaching posts and become a professional novelist for the Asahi newspaper, but in 1906 works of genius were surging forth out of him like magnificent, irrepressible volcanic eruptions.

Reason Two: Botchan is (to paraphrase Woody Allen in 'Annie Hall') a 'full meal'. Were you going to read a book so many times, what genre would you wish it to be? Comedy? Tragedy? Satire? Memoir? Elegy? Botchan is all these genres combined.

Most people know it as one of the most brilliant comedies in Japanese literature and indeed the comic set pieces - Botchan being baffled by the impenetrable dialect of the locals for example and responding with his own Tokyoite beranme-cho; or his battling against grasshoppers left in his bed by mischievous students - offer some of the most laugh-out-loud moments in the nation's literature.

What people don't generally realize however is that elements of tragedy are just as prevalent in Botchan: the central story is of Botchan's love for the elderly house servant, Kiyo, a mother-like figure whom he has left behind in Tokyo. At the end of the novel, Botchan's very identity crumbles and his brief period of carefree abandon is over.

But Botchan contains so much, much more. The novel is a satire on the divisions which had arisen in Japanese society after the Meiji Restoration between those factions previously aligned to the shogunate and those who had overthrown the old order. The novel is also a satire on Soseki's own snooty colleagues at Tokyo Imperial University, whom he lampoons in the form of nicknames ascribed to the teachers at the provincial Middle School at which Botchan arrives.

Matsuyama and nearby Dogo Onsen, where Soseki taught as a young man in 1895-6, is generally thought to be where the novel is set, creating a tourist bonanza which continues to this day. Yet what most people don't realize is that many different aspects of Soseki's own biography are subtly entwined in the novel. Botchan's longing for Kiyo in distant Tokyo for example is actually a reflection of Soseki's experiences in Britain in 1900-1902, when he desperately longed for his wife - also known as Kiyo - back home in Japan.

Which takes us to Reason Three: inexhaustability. If you are going to read a book 100 times, it needs not just to be compulsively readable and a 'full meal', it also needs to be one infinite in its capacity for offering up new insights, where the tiniest details seem redolent with meaning. What is the significance of the tree whose chestnuts were 'more important than life itself' to Botchan as a child? Why does the arch-villain Redshirt always wear a red shirt? Why should it be so ironic that Botchan and his ally, 'The Porcupine', style themselves as 'Divine Avengers' for their final attack on Redshirt?

Botchan is ultimately the story of the modern world itself. Botchan is a proud scion of the samurai and looks down with lofty disdain at backward country bumpkins, without realizing that it is the very process of modernization and westernization sweeping away the past that has been responsible for creating a development gap between Tokyo and the provinces. Botchan speaks to a universal condition: we are proud of our sophistication and modernity and yet we still cling to the image of a less brutal, warmer-hearted past.

In truth, Botchan is the only Japanese classic which I think I could happily read 100 times. Short of being washed up on a South Pacific island that may never happen, but if you haven't done so already, I earnestly entreat you to read it at least once.


Unknown said...

I've read Kokoro and No longer Human at least 10 times and will possibly continue reading them in the future.

fromdowntown said...

I'd say 100 times is a bit much for anything. There are only a few books that I've re-read many times over the years. I can pretty much recite Catcher in the Rye scene by scene. Crime and Punishment and Notes from Underground are two more that I've read a whole lot of times. It must be a book I love for some reason if I'm going to re-read it. And it can't be too long. As for books by Japanese authors, just last week I re-read The Key by Tanizaki. The translation was by Howard Hibbert. It was quite a breeze and very entertaining. I picked up on a lot of things I didn't notice the last time I read it. Being written in the form of a diary, everything is simplified and you get a clear mental image of the two main characters. Whether this book and the others I mentioned are "worthy of re-reading" I can't say. I know they are not everyone's cup of meat. Also, re-reading makes me feel guilty, like I'm neglecting all the other great stuff out there that I haven't gotten to yet. I wonder if other people have such a hang-up?