Monday, September 07, 2015


Natsume Soseki's novel Botchan has been very popular for over 100 years. It was published in 1906, and the main action takes place during the war between Japan and China in 1894-1895. Botchan is a comic novel, which vastly amused its Japanese readers at the time. Its popularity is suggested by the large number of editions even in English -- a Google screen-shot showing just a few of them is above.

Kodansha edition of Botchan.
Natsume Soseki lived from 1867 to 1916.
For me, the fascination of this short book is in the details of daily life and relationships in that long-ago and far-away Japan. The narrator -- a native of Tokyo -- first describes his early life as a wild boy. After attending some sort of secondary school, he takes a fairly undesirable job as a teacher in a rural village school.

While Western novels I've read about rebellions against society often take place in schools, the rebels are usually the kids. In Botchan, the pupils are rowdy, disrespectful, and undisciplined, but not socially aware. Here, it's the teacher/narrator who is a rebel, making fun of his colleagues, giving them comic nicknames, spying on them, sometimes refusing to cooperate, and all the while tangling with his students in quite an undignified way. And he's constantly in need of money!

In the background, the narrator's family retainer, an aging woman servant named Kiyo, is completely loyal to him and even sends him money from the job she gets after the narrator's parents die and his brother deserts him.

One fascinating element of the novel is the descriptions of what the narrator ate -- which was usually inadequate, unappealing, or boring -- and what he daydreamed about eating. When he first gets to the school, he tries to go out for tempura or dumplings, but the students mercilessly make fun of him for these indulgences; he doesn't seem to know why, and I am not sure either -- they just have it in for him. So he stops going out and eats the food provided by his landlady, which is mainly sweet potatoes. Some quotations:
"I sat down for supper. I looked in the dish on the tray, and saw the same old sweet potatoes again to-night. This new boarding house was more polite and considerate and refined than the Ikagins, but the grub was too poor stuff and that was one drawback. It was sweet potato yesterday, so it was the day before yesterday, and here it is again to-night. True, I declared myself very fond of sweet potatoes, but if I am fed with sweet potatoes with such insistency, I may soon have to quit this dear old world. I can't be laughing at Hubbard Squash [nickname for one of his colleagues]; I shall become Sweet Potato myself before long. 
If it were Kiyo she would surely serve me with my favorite sliced tunny or fried kamaboko, but nothing doing with a tight, poor samurai. It seems best that I live with Kiyo. If I have to stay long in the school, I believe I would call her from Tokyo. Don't eat tempura, don't eat dango [dumplings], and then get turned yellow by feeding on sweet potatoes only, in the boarding house. That's for an educator, and his place is really a hard one. I think even the priests of the Zen sect are enjoying better feed. I cleaned up the sweet potatoes, then took out two raw eggs from the drawer of my desk, broke them on the edge of the rice bowl, to tide it over. I have to get nourishment by eating raw eggs or something, or how can I stand the teaching of twenty one hours a week?" (Kindle Locations 1128-1138)
For the victory celebration when the war ends, one of the narrator's fellow teachers, nicknamed Porcupine, brings him some beef:
"...he took out a package covered with a bamboo-wrapper, and threw it down in the center of the room. I had been denied the pleasure of patronizing the noodle house or dango shop, on top of getting sick of the sweet potatoes and tofu, and I welcomed the suggestion with 'That's fine,' and began cooking it with a frying pan and some sugar borrowed from the old lady. Porcupine, munching the beef to the full capacity of his mouth, asked me if I knew Red Shirt having a favorite geisha." (Kindle Locations 1616-1621) 
The humor in Botchan, is difficult for a modern reader, or at least I find it so. I read it alternately in translations by an anonymous translator not long after the original publication (Kindle edition based on 1918 translation), and one from 1971 translated by Alan Turney, published by Kodansha. The text is obviously full of dialect humor, poking fun at specific customs and regional differences, and, according to the introductions to both editions, full of puns. Challenging to English readers and translators!

Here's a sample of the translation differences. Attending a farewell banquet for one of his fellow teachers, the narrator finds the food unacceptable:
"After the exchange of addresses, a sizzling sound was heard here and there, and I too tried the soup which tasted like anything but soup. There was kamaboko in the kuchitori dish, but instead of being snow white as it should be, it looked grayish, and was more like a poorly cooked chikuwa. The sliced tunny was there, but not having been sliced fine, passed the throat like so many pieces of chopped raw tunny. Those around me, however, ate with ravenous appetite. They have not tasted, I guess, the real Yedo dinner."(Kindle Locations 1473-1477).
Same passage from the other translation, which shows you how hard it must be to render into English:
"As soon as the speeches were finished, the sound of sucking and slurping arose on all sides. I followed suit and tried some of the soup, but it was dreadful. Some hashed fish had been served with the soup. It was so dark that I thought they must have bought the cheapest kind of fish and then made a mess of preparing it. There was also a dish of sliced raw fish. Instead of being cut finely, however, it was in great slabs. It was like eating raw tuna steaks. Nevertheless, the people around me seemed to be enjoying the food. they'd probably never tasted Tokyo cooking." (Kodansha edition, p. 131-132)
Although it may have seemed funnier to Japanese readers a century ago than it does now to an American reader, there's much to enjoy and to learn in Botchan!


Jeanie said...

Despite visiting Japan, Rick's frequent trips and passion for Japanese cooking and having a number of friends who live there, I just can't get into Japanese literature. So hearing about this one sounds a little more interesting than most. I love the descriptions. It reminds me of Jacqueline Winspear's only non-Masie Dobbs novel in which a WWI soldier's wife sends him these letters filled with the fantasy of what she was cooking -- all the foods he missed and her culinary experiments. While this distressed the sergeant in charge of the unit, all the soldiers were eager for the letters to arrive asking "What are we having for dinner tonight" as they settled into their rations. It's amazing, how the power of imagination can make a dire circumstance a little more bearable.

Parrish Lantern said...

This is a book that is on my list to read, even own it. Just not read it yet.