Botchan by Sōseki Natsume, translated by J Cohn, is something I’d been meaning to read for, well, a couple of decades now. I’ve had a physical copy longer than I can recall when I got it, perhaps a gift from my Grandmother. I’ve tried getting into it a number of times, but just couldn’t. I finally did.
The most serious attempt at this book was in the 90s when I was taking Japanese 101 at Seattle Central Community College. I had a Japanese friend outside of class that was shocked to see I had the book with me, and that I was reading it, because it was such a deep and specific cultural phenomenon. I ended up saying it was a bit boring, and I didn’t really think much of it. I didn’t finish it. In fact, now that I’ve read it, I don’t think I got very far into it at all, that time.
I still don’t like it. It’s a story about a bunch of awful people being awful and nothing good comes of any of it. The main character is infantile, rash, and gullible. Everyone else is also deeply flawed. They stay that way.
There’s an awful lot of what appears to me homophobic but gratuitous preoccupation with criticizing how feminine other males are. Ironically there’s a scene where the main character is totally mesmerised by the flexing, bulging muscles of a compatriot.
There’s also few female characters at all, with three that appear for any meaningful amount of the story. The first is Botchan’s nanny, who constantly lavishes praise and care on him with an irrational, one might say economically dependant and sycophantic, way that fails to be recognized as such. There’s a beautiful woman who is fickle and the object of a conspiracy who is mostly seen from a distance, when seen at all. There is an old landlady who always cooks sweet potatoes for dinner and is, as it turns out, a useful gossip. There’s others mentioned in passing, but this is really to extent of it.
And, pretty much everyone is miserable or awful to each other, and usually both, including the narrator. It is strange, in a way, to think about how this story is, as described in the front matter, as probably being pretty biographical, because the narrator seems to be to be an ass. The front matter seems to describe the main character as a kind of heroic rebel, but no. Not close. He’s constantly getting tricked. He constantly jumps to conclusions based on hearsay from people he doesn’t trust. And so on.
And, there’s not really any character arc for anyone in the story. In fact, in the end, not much changes. The same awful people just, probably, keep on being awful. That’s the worst part, I guess. I somewhat identify with the situation of being surrounded by people that I can’t really trust, who are up to something; and if I say anything about what they’re doing they just say I started it and I look bad but they’re the assholes. That whole bit of bullshit is too familiar. This story doesn’t resolve that for the characters and doesn’t offer any insight into a way out; except to take some petty revenge then pack up and leave. Maybe that is the only answer then, as it’s kind of what I’ve ended up doing in similar situations.
I just don’t see how this is a “treasured novel” with “timeless popularity” or “a hilarious tale about a young man’s rebellion against ‘the system’”. Maybe I really missed it without the deep and specific cultural or period context. But, unless someone can enlighten me to what’s there but not there, it’s a miss for me. There’s no treasure here. I felt the ploding passage of my time while reading it. It’s painfully not funny at all. He’s not a rebel against any system, just largely oblivious and angry to no ultimate effect. It’s a bleak and boring pastoral about unending pervasive and dismal angst not worth remembering.
Still, it’s well written. It’s an experience of a moment in time in another culture that made me think about life. I’m not glad I read it, but I’m glad I’m done with it.
I made 14 highlights.
Originally posted on my personal blog at Botchan