Thursday, 17 January 2013

'The 210th Day' by Natsume Soseki (Review)

I was always planning to read something by Natusme Soseki (my inaugural J-Lit Giant!) for January in Japan, and I was wondering whether to try his late classic, Grass on the Wayside, or a collection of stories inspired by his time in England, The Tower of London.  However, as regular readers will know, I enjoy finding connections between the books I'm reading, so when I finished reading Shusaku Endo's Volcano, I knew there was only one possible choice for my next book...

The 210th Day (translated by Sammy I. Tsunematsu) is an entertaining novella based on a real-life trip the writer took with a friend in September 1899.  Two men, the educated Roku and the rough-and-ready tofu seller Kei, have decided to climb Mount Aso, a volcanic peak in the centre of Kyushu, and the story details their adventures as they stay at traditional inns and go wandering through the countryside.  The story is told in the present tense and mainly consists of the slightly rambling conversations the two men have on their trip.

The volcano draws immediate parallels with Endo's work (the fictional Akadake of Volcano is based on the south-Kyushu volcano of Sakurajima), but that's where the similarities end.  Natsume's work is a piece of fun, consisting of the same joke-filled dialogues that punctuated his first work, I am a Cat.  In fact, if you're looking for something to compare it to, you'd be more likely to reference Three Men in a Boat than any J-Lit classics.

Of course, there is more to The 210th Day than knockabout humour.  The volcano is not just a fiery mountain, the destination for Kei and Roku's weekend walk; it is a commonly-used literary symbol in Japan, one I've come across three times in a week (if anyone can tell me the Murakami short story I saw it in, ten J-Lit spotter points are yours!), and here it represents the potential for change in Japanese society.  The excitable Kei frequently engages his friend in discussions on the possibility of changing the world, to the amusement of the laid-back (and better off) Roku:
"Even if one wants them, there are lots of things society does not allow, aren't there?"
"That's why I said 'the poor creatures!'  If one is born into an unjust society, it can't be helped.  Whether it permits it or not, is not of much importance.  The main thing is to want it oneself."
"And what if one wants to be something and still does not become it?"
"Whether or not one becomes it is not the problem.  One has to want it.  By wanting it, one causes society to permit it, " says Kei in peremptory tones.
pp.24/5 (Tuttle Press, 2002)
Kei is certain of the possibility of revolution, of turning society upside down and ensuring that everyone has a chance to live life to the fullest.  While it sounds fanciful, the book was first published in 1915 - just a couple of years before the Russian Revolution...

Despite the social themes which the writer would return to in later, more mature, works, The 210th Day is more closely connected to Natsume's early books, mainly because of its comical nature.  Roku is not really cut out for wandering around in the mountains, struggling with sore toes and a dodgy tummy.  Despite this, he manages to keep his sense of humour:
"Whenever you say 'whatever happens' you finally get the better of me.  A little while back, too, because of your 'whatever happens' I ended up eating udon.  If I now get dysentery, it will be because of your 'whatever happens'."
"It doesn't matter.  I will accept responsibility."
"What good does that do me, your accepting the responsibility for my illness?  After all, you yourself are not going to be ill in my place!"
"Don't worry.  I'll look after you.  I shall be infected myself and see to it that you are saved."
"Oh, really?  That reassures me.  Oh well, I'll go on a bit further." (pp.62-3)
If that sounds like two men just talking rubbish - well, that pretty much sums up the book ;)

The 210th Day is an interesting read, but it's probably only one for the Soseki completists.  It's fairly slight, in both depth and pages, compared to his more famous works, and the translation is not the best I've seen.  Tsunematsu has perhaps been a little too faithful to the text, translating it in a rather old-fashioned style of English which (for me) doesn't really suit the kind of story it is (on a side note, translations can be an issue with Natsume Soseki - I have ten of his works, and virtually all of them have been translated by different people...).

Still, if you do happen to come across a copy, it's a pleasant way to while away an hour or so.  I won't reveal whether or not our two friends ever actually manage to reach the top of the mountain, but that is most definitely not the point.  The journey, as is often the case in Japanese literature, is of much more importance than the destination.  The reader just has to strap on their hiking boots and go along for the ride :)