Wednesday 30 June 2010

Review Post 29 - In which Football is alluded to for no good reason...

Brazil, Holland, Argentina (definitely not England): there are many dream teams in the World Cup, but few can compare with the line-up Penguin Classics came up with for their edition of a popular Japanese classic.  Sanshiro, written by the 'Japanese Dickens', Natsume Soseki, is a wonderful Bildungsroman and would be worth the money all by itself.  However, when it's also translated by Jay Rubin, the man who brings Haruki Murakami's works to the English-speaking world (and who has written a book on Murakami), that just makes it a little more special.  And just when you think it can't get any better, who do you think Penguin have engaged to write the introduction?  None other than Murakami himself.  Now that is a team worth watching (or reading).

In Sanshiro, we follow the title character as he leaves his rural home in Kyushu to study English Literature at university in Tokyo.  His education starts on the train, before he even arrives, with a startling confrontation with a rather forward mature woman and an intriguing conversation with an extraordinary man.  On his arrival in the new capital, our young hero becomes part of a social group and attempts to make sense of life in society, not always successfully.  One of the group, the enigmatic and chastely seductive Mineko, becomes especially important in Sanshiro's life, but the young man from the provinces can never quite be sure whether she is toying with his affections or genuinely likes him...

As Murakami remarks in his introduction, while this is a Bildungsroman, it's very different to the European style novel.  In the typical Bildungsroman, a young man enters public life, usually in the big city, and undergoes a series of trials, be they emotional, romantic financial or violent.  By the end of the novel, the hero has successfully weathered the storm and has emerged older and wiser, a mature member of society.  However, this active progression towards becoming a fully-rounded citizen does not describe Sanshiro's journey; his path is characterised by indecision and procrastination, his trials subtle and confusing.  It's also doubtful that he learns much from his experiences at all, appearing almost as naive at the end of the novel as he is at the start.

Sanshiro is a dreamer, and his path through the book can be compared to that of the clouds which appear periodically.  He drifts aimlessly through his studies, picking up friends as he goes without actually appearing to know what he is doing or what he wants.  You may say he's a dreamer (and he's definitely not the only one, surrounded as he is by a bachelor teacher, a hermit PhD student, and a classmate who builds magnificent castles in the air on an hourly basis), but the whole book appears a little dreamlike; the social circle he finds himself a part of is almost like a little bubble, protecting (or keeping) him from the big, bad outside world.

This familiar circle of friends (similar to Mr. Sneaze's circle in I am a Cat) leads one to think that there are autobiographical elements to this book, and Rubin confirms this in his introduction.  The story involving a campaign to introduce a Japanese professor to the university mirrors the real life events around Natsume's start at Tokyo University (although in reality he was the interloper, brought in to replace a popular - and eccentric - American professor).  What's more, the title character was apparently based on a protege of Natsume's who, like Sanshiro, also came from the far-flung provinces of Kyushu. 

This book really is a joy to read, at once familiar and yet just different enough from its western equivalents to avoid sinking into cliche.  You can just imagine Murakami, sitting in a poky flat, poor, smoking, surrounded by cats, reading Sanshiro and forming the germ of an idea which would one day become a novel.  In the introduction to this book he discusses the Bildungsroman, saying "Virtually all novelists have such a work" (p.xxxvi, 2009, Penguin Classics).  He goes on to say that his is Norwegian Wood, and while he does not admit to being influenced by Sanshiro in the writing of his most famous book, it's not difficult to think that there's an element of truth in this.

Good luck to the Blue Samurai over in South Africa; I hope they at least get through to the quarter-finals, surpassing their previous best effort.*  However, they would have to pull off something quite spectacular to match up to this (imaginary) literary dream team.  Thank you, Jay Rubin; thank you, Haruki Murakami; and thank you, especially, Natsume Soseki.

Now it's back to the football...

*They didn't.  Stupid Penalties.