Thursday, 4 October 2012

Sitting in Front of the Gate

I haven't had a lot of opportunities to enjoy my J-Lit library of late, busy as I've been with assorted review copies and Icelandic works, so it was a nice change to pick up a book from my shelves, one I've been wanting to get to for a while.  Natsume Soseki is one of my favourite Japanese writers, and The Gate (Mon), published by Peter Owen Publishers, is the third-part of a thematically-linked trilogy which began with Sanshiro and Sorekara (And Then).  Back to Tokyo we go then :)

The Gate (translated by Francis Mathy) introduces the reader to Sosuke and Oyone, a childless married couple living in Tokyo.  Aside from the usual financial concerns, theirs seems a fairly happy existence, an idyllic, if humdrum, married life in the suburbs of the big city.  However, all is not quite as it seems.  Sosuke's younger brother, Koroku, appears on the scene, and his arrival allows the writer to expand on the back stories of his creations.  Soon, we see that Sosuke and Oyone's life is not as typical as we may first have thought...

The couple's simple existence has come about by necessity, not by choice, as their relationship had rather controversial and immoral beginnings.  However, this has also caused Sosuke to struggle in other areas of his life as he has become unable to assert himself or make any major decision without considerable inner turmoil.  This stagnation has caused him to be cheated of his inheritance and led to his lowly status in his company.  When he is forced to look after his brother, and later his sick wife, it appears that his past has finally caught up with him.

It's not quite as simple as all that though.  While the reader suspects that a major tragedy is in progress, the truth is that little really happens, and it's difficult to work out exactly what The Gate is all about.  Koroku's troubles are certainly not central to the novel, and while Oyone's illness (as written on the back cover) initially appears to be a turning point, this isn't a melodrama.  Even the sub-plot of the wasted inheritance is fairly trivial, quickly brushed under the carpet.

What it's really about is Sosuke and his miserable, grey existence.  The gate of the title is a very Kafkaesque representation of an entrance to a happier state of existence, one which our (anti-) hero is unlikely ever to find.  Living (literally and symbolically!) in the shadows, their house located at the bottom of a cliff, Sosuke and Oyone are old before their time:
"Though they were in fact still young, they had slipped past this stage and seemed to grow plainer and more matter-of-fact day by day.  To the casual observer they may even have given the impression of being two very humdrum and colourless people who had come together as man and wife only to conform to social custom." p.28 (Peter Owen, 2006)
Victims of circumstance, their drab life is not one of choice; rather, they have been forced into it by their mistake:
"That they had spent these long years in daily repetition of the same routine, however, was not because they had from the first lost interest in the outside world, but rather because this world had placed them in isolation, then turned its cold back upon them." pp.134-5
Instead of rebelling against an unforgiving society though, Sosuke accepts his lot, becoming just another rat in the daily race into, and back out of, Tokyo:
"All the year round he breathed the air of Tokyo.  Daily he rode on the streetcar to and from work, passing morning and evening through the bustling streets.  But he was always so fatigued in mind and body that he travelled in a daze, completely unaware of his surroundings." pp.11-12
As you may have gathered from the quotations above, Sosuke is hardly an energetic go-getter.  In fact, at times he's really not a very easy person to feel sympathy for...

Towards the middle of the book, I started to find myself getting a little impatient with the story, wondering where exactly it was going.  It was fairly sickly-sweet in places, and there were a lot of info dumps, dragging the reader back into the past, before looping back to the present, an endless cycle of repetitive information.  Until Sosuke decides to step outside his life for a little while by going to a Buddhist temple...

And this is where the book gets interesting, especially when you finish it and read the wonderful introduction.  Damian Flanagan, a writer and critic who has a particular interest in Natsume Soseki, provides an excellent background to the novel and an intriguing interpretation, one which relies on the author's overseas travels, his literary connections in Tokyo and his familiarity with the work of one Friedrich Nietzsche...

While most of Flanagan's ideas go flapping gently somewhere over my head, this introduction is a perfect example of the kind of extra that can make editions stand out.  Certainly, I felt I understood The Gate a lot more having read Flanagan's analysis of the book.  Without having read Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra) though, I feel I'm not really in a position to judge whether I agree completely with what he says ;)

One thing I am sure of though is that The Gate, despite its lack of drama, does not describe a happy existence.  Sosuke is a man trapped in mediocrity, unable either to forget the past or take a bold step into the future.  While his life is relatively comfortable, he is condemned to cycle between regret and forlorn hope, without the mental strength to break free of the temporal prison he finds himself in.  Repeating mistakes for the rest of your life?  Sounds like a tragedy to me...