Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The Miner - Natsume Sōseki

Kōfu/The Miner first appeared in serialization in 1908 in the pages of the Asahi Shimbun, the narration is from a nineteen year old youth who after being caught between two women, Tsuyako and Sumie, finds himself wandering out of Tokyo through a forest of endless pine trees with the looming intention of throwing himself into a crater at Mt. Asama, or alternatively off Kegon Falls, in his afterword Jay Rubin mentions of the true character whose story Sōseki used as source material for aspects of the book, reading this is in some ways to be reminded of Kusamakura and of Fujimura Misao, finishing The Miner reiterates the hope for an explorative biography of Sōseki which would shed further insights into the stories behind his novels. In some descriptions of The Miner the book has been described as a precursor to Beckett and Joyce including sections which incorporate a stream of conscious style, this is probably mostly evident in the first two thirds of the book, although the reflective nature of the narrator's thoughts are never distant from the course of his describing the unfolding events of the novel, some of these reflections concern his evolving consciousness of his place in society, or more broadly the nature and follies of man, many of these instances of reflection here project over a number of pages and are prompted in a number of differing ways and scenarios, the line of a mountain that dissolves and blurs with that of the sky, the narrator observes that he finds himself in an 'out of focus world', a moment disembarking from a train, another theme that appears in the novel, reiterated by the narrator is the notion of the undefinable character of man and of the concluding observation that there is nothing more unreliable than man.

In some ways it feels that The Miner could be in part a bildungsroman due to the young age of the narrator, there is a sense we're sharing his rite of passage, early in the novel he reveals the fact that his period at the mine was only temporary, so the narrative comes partially from a perspective of hindsight, another aspect that remains slightly obscure is the nature and true scenario of his problem with the two women, Tsuyako and Sumie, it feels very much that perhaps he is the guilty party. In his afterword Jay Rubin observes that there were two Sōseki's, one humorous, the other an intellectual tragedian, and there is a little of both to be found in The Miner, perhaps more of the latter with an added percentage of being of a philosophical and sociological enquiry, with an emphasis on the absurd, it feels a little incredulous to contemplate that this translation has just passed being over a quarter of century old, there is the inclusion of phrases like; highfalutin, and in another scene where the boss of the mine, Mr Hara, instructs the narrator's guide, Hatsu, when after returning with the narrator from a tour of the dark depths of the mine, to sit down and 'take a load off', it feels slightly difficult to reconcile these phrases to a novel from 1908, Rubin's afterword and notes throughout the text remain greatly enlightening and informative.

It's tempting to read The Miner with the idea that  Sōseki is using the mine as a metaphor as the narrator explores his thoughts about the meaning of his existence and future, it feels like we are briefly visiting a darker or baser denizen of humanity amongst the squalid conditions and ways of the miners, another aspect is of the narrator's metropolitan background experiencing for the first time the provincial life, in some ways this is a common scenario that appears in a number of other of Sōseki's novels, of the main character or protagonist relating their experiences when travelling to a new location or surrounding, it occurs in Botchan and also in Sanshiro. Reading The Miner is to be reminded that although there are a number of similar themes usually running through Sōseki's novels, the narrative styles used in his novels are markedly different, in his introduction to Light and Dark John Nathan observes of the scale of interiority that the novel incorporates, but there remains a feeling that in The Miner that this is more so, it feels that The Miner is more allegorical than metaphor in parts it feels like it could be veering into a Kafkaesque landscape, the mine, it appears could be viewed as Sōseki's Vor dem Gesetz/Before the Law, the narrator can't move forward until he has journeyed through the darkness of the mine, there is a hybrid of different motives to his narrative, a sense that the narrator is assuaging his guilt and of his on going interpretation of the nature of the world at large, but the novel offers no redemptive quality, the narrator does not turn to the mine as an alternative to suicide, it's not until he encounters an older miner in the darkness, Yasu, when he becomes lost after Hatsu, his guide, scurries away from him that his thoughts begin to formulate into a concrete coherent course of action. In Yasu, the narrator sees a projected mirror image of himself older, one learnt from experience, Yasu too had come from a comfortable and educated Tokyo family and with a crime in his past a feeling that he is unable to leave the mine and the fate he has chosen, the narrator contemplates Yasu and the possibility of his sacrificed future in the outside world - 'Had society killed Yasu, or had Yasu done something that society could not forgive?'. Yasu offers to pay the narrator's return fare to Tokyo, but the narrator is reprieved from working in the depths of the mine due to a slight of fate, already we know from earlier in the novel that he won't spend the rest of his days at the mine, reading Sōseki often feels like experiencing the narrative unroll perhaps as in a modern emakimono.

Another more experimental aspect of this novel which surfaces from time to time is the narrator's scepticism of the literary worthiness of the events occurring in the novel, this also overspills in relating aspects of the literary worthiness of his own character and actions, and by turns in an equal number of places he expresses his scepticism with learned academia, which he often sees as expressing itself with a lot of 'hot air', was this perhaps included in reaction to the disdain Sōseki received after choosing to give up his university post and write for the Asahi?. In some ways it's none too surprising to see how The Miner is one of Murakami Haruki's favourite novels, as literary worthiness, (or junbungaku-ness?), appears to be a bone of contention that many critics often level with Murakami's writing, much of Rubin's afterword is taken up discussing the criticism levelled at Sōseki's writings at the time of their appearance. As 2016 and then 2017 approaches no doubt hopefully this will see an increase of interest in Sōseki, perhaps this too will also see an increase with the availability of all of his works.


No comments: