Sunday, 11 October 2009

Country Teacher

After reading a few articles on Katai Tayama's (1872-1930), 'Futon', Country Teacher seemed like an interesting novel to look at. Tayama is known as being one of the foremost writers in Japanese naturalism. First published in Japan in 1909 under the title 'Inaka Kyoshi' by publisher Sakura Shobo, this translation by Kenneth Henshall and is published by University of Hawaii Press. Kenneth Henshall also translated Tayama's 'Literary Life in Tokyo 1885-1915', as well as, 'The Quilt and other Stories', (containing Futon), both out of print as far as I know, I'd really like to read both of these. In his preface Kenneth Henshall explains how Tayama had based his novel from the real life diaries of Kobayashi Shuzo,1884-1904, and gives a background to the characters in the novel, and also of the authors who make an appearance under alternative names, who include, Ota Gyokumei, critic Hasegawa Tenki, and Tayama himself. He goes onto highlight that Kobayashi's literary hero was Shimazaki Toson , and reminds us that in those days, writers were followed in the press like pop and sports stars are today. Also included here is an extract on Country Teacher from Tayama's 'Thirty Years in Tokyo', in which he goes further into detail about the diaries and Kobayashi Shuzo whom he had met a number of times through Ota Gyokumei, in the extract there is a page of photographs and a map of the area of where the novel is set, mainly around the border between Gunma and Saitama prefectures.

In the novel Shuzo's name is changed to Seizo Hayashi, starting as a teacher in the small rural village of Miroku, and opens just prior to the Russo-Japan War. Like most of the other young men in his village he has an interest in literature, his group of friends are planning to start a literary magazine, (Gyoda Bungaku), Seizo is often found reading 'Myojo', he reads admiringly of Akiko Yosano , and one of his favourite poems is Enoch Arden. Seizo's family struggles to survive financially, after his father's business went bankrupt, so Seizo's new job come's as a great relief to the family. Seizo also had a younger brother who died young due to tuberculosis. The group of friend's excitement grows as publication of the first edition of their magazine approaches, and Seizo is asked to go to the temple near his school to see if he can obtain a manuscript from the chief priest, who had connections with the literary world in Tokyo, but has since turned away from that world, speaking of an old acquaintance he says, 'It was hopeless for him to chase fame and get smeared with dirt from the city. It doesn't matter how successful you become, once death comes calling, your nothing but tears in other's eyes'.
Whilst walking with his friend Ikuji, Seizo realize they both have feelings for the same girl, Mihoko, but Seizo seems quite happy not to stand in the way of his friends happiness should they become a couple. Seizo has to walk miles from his own village to the school, and as the temple is close to his school, Seizo lodges with the priest. Whilst here, his friends begin to drift away from the village, moving onto universities in Tokyo, the feeling that Seizo gets that his life might not be going in the direction he had envisioned, begin to surface as he observes the older teachers, and thinks sadly of himself, that if he's not careful he might end up like them, 'Am I too then going to pass my life with idle words, like so many people in the world?'. Things worsen when Mihoko returns from her dormitory in Urawa and he receives a postcard from Kojima (an old school friend) telling him that he's qualified for higher school and is going to Kanazawa, Seizo writes him a congratulatory letter, than bursts into tears over his own lack of fortune.
Winter approaches and the literary magazine the friends started is abandoned due to increasing debts and Seizo learns of Ikuji's and Mihoko's relationship which is a source of bitterness. His parents have increasing debt which he helps with, barely leaving any money left over. He continues teaching, eventually moving into the school, on a return trip to his home village he finds that none of his friends are there anymore, he begins to distance himself from the world, composing verse, and weeps over his situation. Seizo begins to learn of Hotto, a neighbouring village and hears of the loose morality there, he contemplates the harsh life in the countryside, compared with the great men in the newspapers, thinks about how many people live the mundane existence, could he to be content with that?. He learns that the countryside is full of stories of suicides, infidelities, burglaries. One day he builds up the courage to take the ferry and visit one of the brothels across the river, after walking away once, he resolutely walks back and picks out the prostitute Shizue, who he's very much taken with, and returns to her again, thinking that maybe they could start a relationship. But he thinks that maybe the brothel house is just toying with his lonely heart, considering her other clients. He doesn't visit for sometime but when he does Shizue has been redeemed, another prostitute gives him a parcel, inside is a note with sorry written in crude characters and a photograph.

In an attempt to change the direction of his life, Seizo signs up for a music school in Tokyo, he makes the journey for the entry exam but fails to get through and returns, with mounting debts Seizo feels he has to get a further grip on his life, concentrating at his job, he restarts his diary in November 1903. Seizo who has suffered from ill health begins to develop a temperature, at night he sweats and begins to suffer from stomach pains, and through the start of the new year his condition worsens, but continues to work. Ikuji returns home and the two discuss the war, and the mounting tension of the siege of Port Arthur . The doctor can't seem to find a cause and the suspicion that it could be consumption is discussed, but nothing can be verified and they can hardly meet the cost for the medicine, Seizo grows paler. Ikuji and Mihoko are to be married, which he can't bring himself to contemplate, and his friend takes him to another doctor for a second opinion, but he is unable to give definite diagnosis. His condition deteriorates and Seizo's doctor announces that its a permanent disability, and he becomes bedridden, he worries about his sick pay entitlement, after investigating he's entitled to two months. Confined to his bed Seizo frustratingly contemplates not being able to take part in the jubilation of the victories as the war progresses and thinks of the soldiers fighting and giving their lives on the plains of Manchuria.

Kenneth Henshall highlights in his preface that Tayama elaborated on some aspects of the diaries and changed some of the dates, and also notes that Kobayashi's original diaries were used to repair sliding doors in the second world war, so sadly further re-examination is impossible. The novel gets a little nationalistic near the end, but being written when it was, it's none too surprising, I'm unaware of Tayama's politics, but Tayama's depiction of Seizo's loneliness as his friends leave for university, and pursue life beyond the village, was done with a heart breaking accuracy, further compounded by the novel's sad conclusion.

No comments: