Kokoro こころ: the heart of things
Published in 1914 in Japanese, Kokoro is widely regarded as Natsume Sōseki’s masterpiece. Edwin McClellan, who translated the novel in 1957, wrote in the foreword that he found the above definition to be the most befitting.
The novel starts on an unassuming tone – a young and unidentified student is drawn to an older man that he meets at a beach. My initial thought was that the former may be homosexual who sublimates his attraction to the older man by calling him “Sensei” and looking up to him as a mentor.
The story unfolds with the narrator’s vivid recollections of encounters and conversations with Sensei. The encounters appear ordinary yet are intense and laden with emotions.
I am puzzled by the narrator’s unconditional admiration for Sensei, a melancholic middle-aged man who has withdrawn from society and leads an idle life. The mystery surrounding Sensei, his self-imposed isolation and his occasional loaded comments that imply a melancholic doom are intriguing.
As the story unravels, I feel increasingly indifferent to Sensei who appears to be someone who is indecisive, timid and self-indulgent. Instead, I wish to learn more about the narrator’s ailing father who, in spite of being diagnosed with incurable kidney disease, strives to resist his fate and holds on to hope.
[Spoiler alert] In some ways, Kokoro reminds me of Yasunari Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness. There is the prolonged, unspoken loneliness experienced by a main character. Significant events and relationships from the past cast a dark, unshakable shadow over the present. The looming melancholy draws me into the tale and make me not want to put down the book.
Kokoro, like Beauty and Sadness, builds up to an inevitable and devastating scenario (death in both instances). Yet both tales end on an ambiguous note, leaving room for hope.
In a final letter to the narrator, Sensei writes:
Only recently, I was told that Watanabe Kazan postponed his death for a week in order to complete his painting, Kantan. Some may say that this was a vain sort of thing to do. But who are we to judge the needs of another man’s heart?
Kokoro was Sōseki’s last completed work. He died of stomach ulcer two years after Kokoro was published. Is Kokoro indeed Sōseki’s finest work? I have no idea as this is the first time I’ve read something by Sōseki. But I dare say that Kokoro is an excellent and engaging read.