JQ Magazine: Book Review – Natsume Soseki’s “Kokoro” Takes New Translation to Heart

By Sharona Moskowitz (Fukuoka-ken, 2000-01) for JQ magazine. Sharona is an associate literary agent at Regina Ryan Publishing Enterprises. She handles both upscale and commercial fiction and is always looking for outstanding projects to represent. Visit her at Regina Ryan Books.

In a magazine article published earlier this year, crooked former banker Bernie Madoff told the public that despite his lies, despite the lives left ruined in the wake of his atrocious crimes, he is not a bad man.

Why do I bring this up here, in a book review of Japanese author Natsume Soseki’s seminal 1914 novel Kokoro? Because Madoff could have learned a thing or two from the book. As the saying goes, the classics aren’t about what happened, they’re about what happens. And Kokoro is no exception.

The novel peels back the layers of an unlikely friendship between a callow university student and a reclusive old man to reveal how experiences shape us and relationships define us, for better or worse. Admiration, greed, curiosity, jealousy; all these ingredients swirl together in the complex stew of the human psyche, the kokoro (“heart”). Only in the face of temptation are a person’s true colors revealed.

The new translation by Meredith McKinney offers readers a more modern version without compromising the impact of the work. The novel is both timeless and timely—it’s as relevant now as it ever was. Maybe cynicism weathers the ages better than unexamined optimism. Or, maybe human nature just doesn’t change that much.

When the student first meets Sensei, the old man’s body and spirit are frayed by the wear and tear of his years. The student, on the other hand, is a rookie in the game of life, full of impatient curiosity and an aching thirst for knowledge. He projects his hopes and desires onto the enigmatic old man. whom he clings to like a groupie. Freud might have called it a classic case of being in love—obsessive thinking, the overestimation of an object. To the young naif, Sensei is a novelty. Knower of many things, teller of few. He is the Yin to the student’s Yang.

I first read Kokoro when I, like the narrator, was still in my salad days, a university student eager to dive headfirst into the much vaunted real world. Still, idealistic as I may have been, a certain passage caught my eye then and has stayed with me through the years. As I recently read the new translation, I found that the passage still packs the same intensity. though the nuances have changed. In a conversation that takes place early in the novel, Sensei offers the student advice about human nature:

“You seem to be under the impression that there is a special breed of bad human. There is no such thing as a stereotype bad man in this world. Under normal conditions, everybody is more or less good, or at least ordinary. But tempt them and they may suddenly change. That is what is so frightening about men. One must always be on one’s guard.” (p. 61 Edwin McClellan translation)

And the new translation:

“But do you imagine there’s a certain type of person in the world who conforms to the idea of a ‘bad person’? You’ll never find someone who fits that mold neatly, you know. On the whole all people are good, or at least they’re normal. The frightening thing is that they can suddenly turn bad when it comes to the crunch. That’s why you have to be careful.” (p. 60 McKinney translation)

That the word “crunch” so strongly connotes money is no coincidence. When we hear his testament later on, we learn that much of Sensei’s suspicion about others relates to money. He grew up in a rich family and felt that his privilege was a magnet for the evil eye of his peers. When both of his parents die untimely deaths, he is cheated out of his inheritance by his own greedy uncle.

As an old man, Sensei knows the dangers of the crunch all too well. When he learns that the student’s father is in dire medical condition, he tells him that he must secure his own inheritance from his ailing father. The message is clear: where money is concerned, protect yourself. Trust no one, not even your own blood.

Yet Sensei has experienced betrayal as both the victim and the perpetrator. As a result he distrusts human beings as a category, one that includes himself. The event that has been the main wellspring of guilt in his life was the suicide of his friend K, a tragedy for which he feels directly responsible. K was secretly in love with a young woman who Sensei proposed to and eventually married. Though Sensei loved her too, he was driven just as much by rivalry and a desire to poach what K so desperately wanted; a form of greed which deals not in money but in the currency of love. Reflecting on his own dubious motives, he realizes, “I was no different from my uncle…others were already repulsive to me, and now I was repulsive even to myself.”

Given that Kokoro is part cautionary tale against greed and its concomitant perils, the new translation couldn’t have arrived at a better time. As the economy inches forward, people are still collectively on the mend from the financial disaster of 2008. It’s a curious irony that Soseki’s own mustachioed face no longer graces the 1,000 yen note. Maybe his image was best considered a reminder: watch your back and guard your integrity in the event of a crunch. Too bad Bernie Madoff failed to heed that warning.