April 2016

Salvatore Ruggiero

fiction

The Miner by Natsume Sōseki, translated by Jay Rubin

I'm surprised that eleven years ago, when Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami was a national bestseller, there wasn't a call for a readily available translation of The Miner. Natsume Sōseki's novel is discussed by two of Kafka's characters in great detail. Wouldn't readers of Murakami want to get a better sense of what his creations are talking about? Wouldn't readers want to take part in that conversation?

Thankfully Aardvark Bureau has decided to release an updated version of the 1988 English translation by Jay Rubin, one of Murakami's own translators. Aardvark Bureau may be late, but better now than never.

Natsume Sōseki's novel, originally published in 1908, is strange but charming, an oddity even in Sōseki's own works. The unnamed narrator is looking back at his nineteen-year-old self with awe and curiosity, detailing five days after he runs away from the comforts of his upper-middle-class Tokyo home. The pressures of marriage to a woman he doesn't love, of not being able to be with the woman he does love, and of family who seem too old fashioned all hit him too hard.

With no plan and no real aims -- suicide being a possibility, but really he's looking for just an annihilation of his former self -- he gets caught up with a man who is looking for new blood to work at a mine 140 kilometers north of Tokyo. The travel there is arduous; the depths of the mine itself are treacherous. Everything and everyone are against this narrator, wanting him to turn back to his former life. But he continues to press on.

His narrative starts off like Dante's, before the Inferno:

Been walking and walking through this band of pine trees. [...] Can't tell if I'm making headway with only trees around. No point walking if the trees aren't going to do something -- develop. Better to stay put and try to outstare a tree, see who laughs first.

The meditative life clearly isn't a part of this narrator's nineteen-year-old world yet, which is interesting since the entirety of this novel ends up being a meditation on the self, on seeing through to the inner self and the fracturing within. Such a perception requires "images to savor, [where] I wield my scalpel mercilessly (you can do this with old memories) in an attempt to chop up my own mental processes and examine every little piece. The results, however, are always the same: I don't understand them."

It's a bold statement: a narrator admitting freely to not understanding. It's an even bolder statement: a narrator admitting freely to not understanding his own story. Our feet are on unsteady ground -- something that also happens to the narrator when he explores the mine, wading water, not being sure which direction is which.

All of this ties into the fact that this novel argues that there is no certainty when it comes to people, when it comes to your observations. Just because you felt or acted one way today doesn't mean that you'll feel or act the same way tomorrow. There's fluidity in personality that generally goes unappreciated, since it's just easier to classify and put everyone in his or her own labeled box. The narrator states:

The trouble with people is they think they're solid as a rock. They don't look at another person's surroundings but try to force him into some predetermined slot. They assume it's perfectly reasonable to treat others this way, but I don't think I've ever heard of anyone who was happy to squeeze himself in where he doesn't fit. If you go at everything like this, you're going to have to run away from the three-dimensional world to one that's perfectly flat.

A noble argument. Unfortunately the narrator doesn't really notice that he in fact forces the miners he comes to meet into a predetermined slot: savages. He doesn't even see them as human, for:

[T]he sight of this black clump of humanity made me falter somewhat. Now it would have been an entirely different matter if these had been ordinary human beings. [...] I couldn't find a hint of warmth or softness in these faces. In a word, they were savage faces. [...] All were equally savage, and now I saw that all were clearly etched with contempt, derision, and curiosity.

These words wouldn't be out of place in Heart of Darkness, except this criticism is about class instead of race. And this classist sentiment isn't abated much when the narrator meets a miner who is the older, worn version of himself -- an intellectual who also ran away due to love gone wrong. Murakami's introduction suggests that he finds this a bit off-putting but that "the idea of political correctness [in Sōseki's day] was all but nonexistent."

Murakami's introduction to this volume will help the Sōseki initiate enter calmly into this important author's world. It gives the reader a sense of the odd standoffishness that the author takes in this work, so much so that Murakami even states that by the end "all you can do is wonder why Sōseki went to all the trouble of writing it." His worries are echoed by Jay Rubin's concerns that "the very form of the novel is lost" through a "prolix analysis of non-events." How avant-garde!

The Miner really is an odd treasure and ranks up there as one of my favorite Sōseki novels (along with Kokoro and Kusamakura). It captures so well the frustration of being on the threshold of many things but not being definitively anything. The interiority of experience and the concept of the mosaic of the self displayed here prove that Modernism wasn't solely confined to Europe. Resistance -- to the narrator, to the narrative, to the miners and other characters -- is central to this book, all of which culminate in the final line: "every bit of it is true, which you can tell from the fact that this book never did turn into a novel." The Miner is an awkward, fascinating novel -- yes, novel -- that deserves a new generation of English readers.

The Miner by Natsume Sōseki, translated by Jay Rubin
Aardvark Bureau
ISBN 978-1910709023
264 pages