Anyone who loves Japanese literature will tell you that Natsume Soseki is one of those authors whose works you really need to read. I’m ashamed to admit that the likes of Kokoro and I am a Cat (how have I not read that one?) have been on my ‘to read’ list for far too long, but I finally got my first taste of Natsume Soseki reading Botchan on a very long flight to Japan last month. So, consider this a book review by someone who is by no means an expert of Natsume Soseki but very much likes her books, especially Japanese ones.
Botchan, written in 1906, follows the story of a reckless yet morally upright young man growing up in a wealthy Tokyo family before departing to teach in a backwater middle school on the island of Shikoku. Overshadowed by his quiet and studious older brother, he earns an unfortunate reputation as a troublemaker and only his elderly maidservant, Kiyo, looks out for him. She calls him ‘Botchan’ – master darling – and this is the only name we have for our main character. After his brother inherits the family wealth and leaves Botchan with 600 yen, he studies physics at university then takes up a teaching post in rural Shikoku.
What follows is a hilarious and witty story about a well-bred Tokyoite battling with his more ‘country’ students and fellow teachers. Crickets appear in his bed and his regular trips to the onsen and restaurants in a small town earn him a series of unfortunate nicknames. The teachers – who Botchan gives nicknames to – aren’t much better. The head teacher (Red Shirt) and Koga (Squash) are competing for the attention of the local beauty and the other teachers have taken sides. Botchan soon becomes good friends with a fellow maths teacher (Porcupine) but as they get drawn in to the other teachers’ scheming, he plots how to put things right.
Botchan read a bit like Jeeves and Wooster to me – the main character takes pride in his Tokyo pedigree and is quite precious around his more rough-and-ready students. He also has a habit of stumbling onto unfortunate situations and is constantly shocked, surprised and incredulous. Despite his recklessness, he does have a strong moral compass that guides him throughout the novel and stops him from sinking to the depths as some of his fellow teachers. The elderly Kiyo, who remains with her family while Botchan is in Shikoku, does not feature herself so much in the novel but frequently comes to his mind when he is faced with a dilemma. She herself is from a wealthy family that fell on hard times and is as close to Botchan as a mother.
Natsume Soseki spent three years in London and grew up in Meiji-era Japan, where traditional Japanese ways of life were being eroded away as westernisation rapidly took over. We have plenty of allusions to this throughout Botchan – from the contrast between rural Shikoku and modernised Tokyo to Botchan’s struggle against an elitist culture in Red Shirt.
If you haven’t read any Natsume Soseki novels before, I would say Botchan is a very good place to start. It’s funny, well-written and you have a brilliant character in Botchan himself.