Kokoro, by Natsume Soseki

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Four stars, read in August 2016.

I found this just lovely in a very quiet, no-frills way (which is the usual, I suppose, for the Japanese writers I’ve been reading). It’s the story of a young man’s relationship with his mentor, and I particularly appreciated the exploration of Sensei’s inability to trust people, including himself. Somehow I know what that feels like—to hold simultaneously an unreasonably high standard of morality and the knowledge that no one meets it, even—or maybe especially—you. In Sensei’s case, it’s because of something unforgivable in his past, but for me it seems to be just the way I see the world.

The structure worked well, the first half told by the first-person narrator, and then the second half in the form of a letter from Sensei. I’d been expecting it to go back to the narrator afterward, but it didn’t, and I ended up okay with that. I liked imagining the narrator reading the letter on the train, feeling much the same way I was feeling by the lack of closure.

With all the historical context given, I couldn’t help imagining it as fully autobiographical, with Ryunosuke Akutagawa as the original narrator and Soseki, of course, as Sensei (I just read Rashomon, with the detailed timeline of Akutagawa’s life at the beginning, so I know that they did have a sort of master/student relationship). It’s very strange for me to feel such an affinity with Japanese men who wrote nearly—or, in this case, more than—one hundred years ago. I felt the same way when I read Akutagawa, which probably contributed to that biographical sense I had while reading.

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